Law enforcement, advocates laud Backpage's removal of sex ads

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The website features classified ads for everything from cars to companionship.

And up until last week, the adult section of the website was filled with hundred of ads linking users to a directory of prostitutes across Hawaii.

But last Monday, the website removed all ads from its adult category after a U.S. Senate report claimed the company hid criminal activity by deleting words like "young" and "rape" from ads that would expose child sex trafficking and prostitution.

The decision to take down the ads is being applauded by Hawaii law enforcement officials and advocates, who say the website's ads help promote Hawaii's sex trafficking black market.

"We've rescued some local girls. We've also encountered foreign nationals, too," said Department of Homeland Security special agent-in-charge Joanna Ip.

Ip calls the sale of sex big business in Hawaii.

In addition to hotel, in-home and street prostitution, it's estimated there are 100 brothels scattered across the state, sex trafficking advocates say.

"Basically, a lot of ads that they had in their adult section were put on there either by what they found to be prostitutes or pimps selling prostitutes," Ip said.

The website, meanwhile, says it doesn't believe taking down the ads will address human trafficking.

"This act of censorship will not reduce the problem of human trafficking. Instead, it undermines efforts by to cooperate with law enforcement and provide information to identify, arrest and prosecute those who engage in human trafficking," the site said, in a statement.

Victoria Lamb, social justice director of Bluewater Mission, says she's not buying it.

"I don't think it's a valid argument. I mean, they're making tons of money off that. That's why they're doing it," she said.

Backpage launched more than a decade ago expanding significantly when Craigslist did away with it's adult ad section under pressure from federal authorities. Apps like Tinder and Instagram have also become popular places to advertise sex.

"I think investigation and prosecution and criminal charges is where things need to be taken in order for us to see a substantial difference and impact," Lamb said.

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