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September 4, 2011

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Potential ‘Super’ problem awaits

When I first heard Indiana Deputy Attorney General David Miller talk about the need to fast-track legislation that would add child trafficking to the state’s sex offenses, I was baffled.

At the risk of sounding naïve, I didn’t understand the urgency in Miller’s argument: that the bill needed to be passed and signed into law before early February, when tens of thousands of sports fans will descend upon the state’s capital city for the 2012 Super Bowl.

Miller told me most of those fans will be law-abiding. But he also informed me that before the 2011 Super Bowl weekend in Dallas, it was the Texas Attorney General who described the party-filled spectacle — saturated with sex and alcohol — as “one of the biggest human trafficking events in the United States.”

The Texas AG’s fears mirrored the worries of Miami law enforcement before the Super Bowl was played there in 2010: an influx of underage prostitutes brought into the city to service an increased demand for commercial sex from tourists in town for the game.

Sounds incredibly sordid, doesn’t it? Almost like the story line for a fictional TV cop show.

But Miller’s boss, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, is taking the scenario seriously. He argues that current state law makes it a crime to solicit a child for sex, but doesn’t cover the organized exploitation of children by people who profit from the sale of sex with a minor. He’d like the Indiana legislature to change that, quickly, when it convenes again in January.

Last week Zoeller offered a glimpse of how child exploitation flourishes in the digital age. He joined with more than 40 attorneys general across the U.S. in a push to shut down the “escorts” section on backpage.com, an online advertising site where ads for prostitutes — including underage ones — have routinely appeared.

Zoeller co-signed a letter sent to backpage.com’s attorney, calling the site “a hub” for prostitution and human trafficking and challenging the company to come through on its promises to shut down the ads that offer or solicit sex with children.

The letter cites the May arrest of a Massachusetts man who advertised on backpage.com to solicit customers to have sex with a 15-year-old girl whom he forced into prostitution. The letter also says that backpage.com officials admit they identify more than 400 “adult services” posts every month that may involve minors.

Company officials point to their content policy, aimed at preventing child sexual exploitation and human trafficking, but Zoeller and his colleagues don’t think they’ve done nearly enough. They note in their letter that the site makes an estimated $22.7 million annually from ads posted in its escorts section.

You’d think there’d already be a law the state attorneys general could wield, but it’s not that simple. In 1996, Congress passed legislation aimed at protecting children from online abuse, but the law also gives Internet content providers, like backpage.com, broad immunity from liability for content posted by third parties — even the sick, sordid exploiters of children who appeal to the darkest desires of adults.

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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