Mayor Mike McGinn met this afternoon with leaders of the Seattle Weekly and its parent company, Village Voice Media, to demand that they do more to prevent their online ads from being used as vehicles for child prostitution.
"They can do better—a lot better," McGinn said, flanked by Councilmember Tim Burgess and Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel, who were both part of the meeting. "Other sites are, and as a moral issue they should.”
McGinn's complaint centers on Backpage.com, a web site owned by Village Voice Media and used by the Seattle Weekly for its escort advertising business. “This is the only site with which we have this problem in King County," McGinn said. "All of the cases we reported to them started at Backpage.com.”
There have been 18 cases in King County over three years suggesting that Backpage.com is being used for child prostitution, according to city officials. Because of this, McGinn has been demanding that the Seattle Weekly and Backpage.com begin checking the IDs of people who wish to advertise escort services—rather than continuing to allow anyone to proceed with a Backpage.com transaction after merely clicking a mouse to affirm that he or she is 18 or older.
"If they don’t do it, we will continue to do what we have been doing," McGinn said. "Which is to put a spotlight on this problem until they address it.”
How did the leadership of Village Voice Media and the Seattle Weekly respond to McGinn's request for ID verification?
"They were not prepared to agree to that request immediately," McGinn said.
But, he added: "They indicated that they were taking that request seriously and would respond within one to two weeks. We have made our position clear and we expect them to take the actions we requested immediately. They need to clean up their act.”
The Seattle Weekly did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
[UPDATE: Mike Seely, the Seattle Weekly's editor in chief, said in an e-mail, apparently referring to The Stranger's online escort ad service: "Naughty Northwest does, in fact, have a dog in this hunt."
It's not clear what he meant, but the materials McGinn's staff handed out to the media in advance of his press conference this afternoon included a screen-grab of the Naughty Northwest policies. Those policies require in-person verification of any prospective escort advertiser's ID, as well as proof of identity and age for anyone desiring to be pictured in an escort ad. It's this kind of ID verification that McGinn is asking the Seattle Weekly's owners to implement.]
Until he gets the response he expects, McGinn said, he'll continue the City of Seattle's advertising boycott of the Seattle Weekly. And, he's preparing to go a step further.
"I am considering contacting other mayors," McGinn said, adding that he'd already directed his office of intergovernmental relations to reach out to the leaders of other cities for information on their experiences with Backpage.com. "If we could get some support from them, that would be great," he said.
As for what kind of impression all of this made on the leadership of the Seattle Weekly and its owners, McGinn said: "I think they were taken aback... They continue to try to minimize the severity of the problem."
McGinn said that after Seattle Weekly owners showed him a Power Point presentation of how they view the situation, he informed them that 180 individuals in King County were victimized by child prostitution between June of 2010 and May of 2011, and that Backpage.com is clearly contributing to the problem. He also showed them three Backpage.com ads that the city had noticed in the last 24 hours featuring escorts "which we knew were children."
“The key issue for us," McGinn said, "is that they need to take affirmative steps, in advance, to make sure that the individuals being advertised on their site are not under-aged.”