Private citizens are turning what could be some very expensive screws on Village Voice Media for its operation of Backpage.com, a sex trafficking site that made news late in 2011 because of its link to a number of murder victims.
For the record, I still believe, as I wrote in January, that attempts by government directly to shutter Backpage.com would be an assault on the Internet freedoms we all enjoy. Now a more ingenious private-sector pincer movement is at work, and it just might squeeze the profits out of sex ads.
"Hit them where it hurts" is the operating thesis of the organizers of this push, who are gathering up signatures on Change.org, where -- as of this writing -- nearly 239,000 people have digitally inked a petition titled “Tell Village Voice Media to Stop Child Sex Trafficking on Backpage.com.”
Signatures and even petitions may be so much ignorable hot air. But Groundswell, the street-smart organizers of this grassroots movement, know that Village Voice, which rakes in
a couple million monthly from ads it sells on Backpage.com, is not about to turn its back on that income, unless it is persuaded it will lose still more if it doesn’t.
And the campaign to raise awareness about Backpage.com is exacting a price at Village Voice Media. For instance, in recent weeks two private equity firms have distanced themselves from the company. A Goldman Sachs spokeswoman, asked to explain why a Goldman fund had sold back its 16 percent stake to Village Voice Media, said Goldman had become “uncomfortable with the direction of the company." Another fund, Trimaran, also is talking about selling its share back to Village Voice, again because of apparent discomfort about Backpage.com.
Where this particular pedal really hits the metal, however, is in the pressures the petition organizers are putting on companies that advertise in the Village Voice Media print weeklies. An email distributed by Groundswell in early May said 27 sponsors had decided to pull ads: “American Airlines, AT&T, Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Buddy Stubbs, Carnegie Hall, Children's Wish Foundation International, Crown Imports LLC, H&M, Harkins Theatre, Harley Davidson, High Times, IKEA, Live Nation, Macy's, Miami Dolphins, MillerCoors, NY Public Radio, NYC Film Forum, Park Avenue Church, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, REI, Relativity Media, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Tribeca Performing Arts Center.”
“I’m thrilled to hear so many companies have dropped their advertisements from Village Voice Media publications,” said Justin Wassel, who launched the campaign on Change.org. “Many of them are major national brands who cater to families and children, so it’s only natural they should be concerned about their advertisements supporting child sex trafficking.”
But not every national advertiser has fled Village Voice Media; Change.org has listed companies that continue to advertise: “American Apparel, Android, Anheuser-Busch, Arizona Diamondbacks, ASPCA, Atlantic Broadband, Blick Art Materials, Buffalo Wild Wings, Champs Sports, Charter Communications, Cirque du Soleil, Colorado Mammoth Lacrosse, Dave and Busters, Foursquare, Guitar Center, H.D. Buttercup, Hard Rock Café, Harrah’s Resorts, Houston Symphony, Icelandair, IHOP, JR Electronics, KCRW, LG, Lululemon, Mesa Arts Center, MetroPCS, Minnesota Wild, Minnesota Orchestra, Monsanto, MTV2, Reliant Bank, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, St. Louis Rams, Total Bank, US Bank, Ticketfly, Veo Optics, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Brothers, YWCA of Minneapolis, YWCA Twin Cities, Zagat.”
And Groundswell offered up the names and email contacts for key personnel at companies such as Lululemon, the yoga outfitter -- just in case recipients of the email felt inclined to prod companies that still advertise with Village Voice Media.
Key question: Is it fair to pressure a company -- whose publications honestly include some of the sassiest and best weeklies in the country -- because it may be financially propping up the enterprise by taking money from pimps who may be selling the services of children on Backpages.com?
To me, the answer is a loud and plain yes, it is fair. It’s a helluva lot more fair than pimping a drugged-out kid on the Web.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.