Meet Liz McDougall, the unlikely-seeming lawyer defending Village Voice Media in Backpage controversy
Somehow, Liz McDougall doesn't seem the type who defends big corporations from attacks by law enforcement agencies, clergy groups, and celebrity do-gooders who say they want to end the trafficking of minors and immigrants for sex.
A slender but athletic woman with pixie-cut short brown hair and a friendly face, the attorney has more than a decade of experience in cybercrime law; two decades of pro-bono work defending exploited women and children. She looks younger than the depth of her career, and her 1993 degree from New York University's law school suggests she must be.
On Wednesday afternoon, McDougall appeared in a cramped 16th-floor office in Lower Manhattan for a hearing convened by a committee of the New York City Council. She wore a black button-down dress and matching stockings that accentuated the bright green bracelet on her left wrist. She took a seat, waiting to testify on behalf of Village Voice Media, and bearing a believable conviction that she is a loyal soldier in the fight against sex-trafficking, even if others see her as more of an enemy combatant.
McDougall, who lives in the Seattle area, according to her LinkedIn profile, took a job as general counsel for Village Voice Media less than two months ago.
The company shares its name with a venerable New York institution, but conducts most of its business out of a central office in Phoenix, from which it oversees a string of 13 alternative newsweeklies from Seattle to Miami, including, since 2005, The Village Voice. It also owns a lucrative online classifieds apparatus, Backpage.com, the "adult services" component of which has come under fire for enabling sex-trafficking. McDougall is now the main line of defense against the site's detractors. She did the same for Craigslist when it was going through a sex trafficking saga in 2010. (Craigslist scrapped its adult-services ads that September, thus sending a surge of business over to Backpage.)
The Council had called the hearing to consider a resolution urging Village Voice Media to "stop accepting adult services advertisements on ... Backpage.com, because it serves as a platform to traffic minors and adult victims for sex."
McDougall had some tough acts to follow.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes testified that among the 40 cases his sex-trafficking unit has prosecuted in the past two years, "one website, above all, [was] most frequently used to exploit children and advertise trafficked victims—that website is Backpage.com."
Daniel Alonso, Manhattan's chief assistant district attorney, said sites like Backpage "enable traffickers to drum up demand for what they believe is a product," and that "we don't buy" the argument that shutterering Backpage.com's adult ads would only serve to drive sex-trafficking further underground and out of view from law enforcement.
"We're doing just fine without having to troll the Internet," he said.
Next was a pseudonymously-identified sex-trafficking victim named "Brianna."
Members of the press were asked not to photograph or film her as she entered the room and took a seat behind a white panel that obscured her from view. She'd been excused from school for part of the day to tell her story of being forced into prostitution at age 12 by a friend's older brother.
"Backpage sent me at least 35 dates a night," she said. "I couldn't stop working until he felt satisfied with the money."
She began to cry.
The adult category of Backpage, according to testimony from alleged victims and investigations by law enforcement, is overrun with pimps who use it to sell underage girls into prostitution. In the past year, calls for Village Voice Media to eliminate this section of the site have been amplified by celebrities, clergy groups, 19 U.S. senators, 48 state attorneys general, a 235,000-strong online petition, and an increasingly prodigious volume of high-profile news coverage.
"The pimp locked her in the room, she recalled, and alternately beat her and showed her affection," Nicholas Kristof wrote of Brianna last week in his latest New York Times column on the subject. "She says that he advertised her on Backpage.com, the leading Web site for sex trafficking in America today."
New York City, being as it is the home of Village Voice Media's namesake brand—an august publication with a legacy of social justice coverage that makes it an unlikely target for social justice activists—has become a major battleground in the war against the site.
Numerous local politcians, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, have taken up the cause. Longtime Voice advertisers, meanwhile, like Film Forum and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, are starting to put their money elsewhere. And in a symbolically fraught gesture last month, John Buffalo Mailer, son of the late Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer, stood up on a red soapbox at a rally outside the Voice's Cooper Square headquarters and lamented that "a paper that was there to hold people who abuse power accountable" was "now justifying their actions for profit." (The adult classifieds on Backpage reportedly account for 70 percent of revenue generated annually by online prostitution advertising in the U.S., earning the company more than $22 million a year.)
Back at the hearing, several committee members wiped tears from their cheeks as Brianna left to head back to school.
Then it was McDougall's turn.
She moved to a seat near the front of the room for her interrogation by the committee members, who sat side-by-side at a long table. For the next 10 minutes, her soft voice trembling slightly either from nerves or resolve, she recited her spin: It was out of altruism, not economic gain, that Village Voice Media was determined to preserve its cash cow sex ads.
"This is a grossly complex issue, and I think it's critical that all sides be heard so that the right solutions can be reached," she began. "I did not come to Village Voice Media and Backpage to defend a company for engaging in illegal activity for profit. I came with their committment that I had the power and free reign to figure out the best ways to fight trafficking online."
As she has in recent statements to the press, McDougall emphasized Village Voice Media's cooperation with law enforcement in monitoring Backpage.com and reporting potential trafficking cases (around 2,600 so far) to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which in turn reports them to the authorities.
But her prepared remarks were also a cautionary tale of what might happen if the adult ads were to disappear.
"The reason that we take the position ... that taking down the adult category of Backpage is not an effective counter measure to human trafficking is because the content will migrate somewhere else," she said. "What terrifies me is the notion that what is going to happen is that this content, this advertising, is going to go to what are known as the 'black hat' websites, the underground websites, and ultimately the off-shore websites. And when that happens, not only will these websites not care to cooperate with law enforcement, but when they are off-shore, they are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement."
She continued: "If there was a silver bullet to solve this problem, we would use that silver bullet, but there's not."
After a few more minutes of testimony about how sex-trafficking is an Internet-wide problem that can't be solved by shutting down a single website, McDougall took a breath, paused and, finding nothing else in her notes that she wished to address, thanked the committee for hearing her out.
Which is about when things started to get ugly.
"I think what you're missing is that you are a key part of the problem," said Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, the committee chair, raising her voice. "For you not to speak to the point that you are playing a key role in this problem, I have an issue with that."
"If you are at all genuine about wanting to end this, then you've got to acknowledge the role that you play in it," said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the Backpage resolution's sponsors.
"I do acknowledge the role that we play," McDougall replied. "I have a 15-year-old daughter. My heart breaks for these children. And the last thing I would ever want is my daughter exposed to something like this, which is why I am so adamant about fighting this."
Mark-Viverito let out a frustrated sigh.
"I mean, it's just, it's really, I just don't—It's hard to even sit here. I'll be honest," she said.
"Are you thinking of setting up a drug dealing section of the Backpage website?," asked Councilman Brad Lander, the resolution's co-sponsor, in the midst of a tense exchange in which McDougall was repeatedly interrupted.
"I refuse to answer that question," she said.
"How about a gun-trading or weapons-trading section?"
"I refuse to answer that question."
"By your logic, wouldn't they be extremely helpful in prosecuting drug-dealing and weapons-trading because, if they could just be brought online, taken out of off-shore websites and brought into the light, it would be far easier to refer them to law enforcement?"
"I don't believe that sarcasm and rhetorical questions like this—"
She didn't get a chance to finish.
"You have made clear that, in your opinion, this issue is grossly complex," said Lander, concluding his line of questioning a few minutes later. "To me, it's just gross."
One thing the committee kept coming back to was the question of exactly how much revenue Village Voice Media derives from Backpage.com's adult section. McDougall declined to comment. (Village Voice Media is a private company and therefore does not disclose its financials.) But she did say that attorneys general have indicated it would be more difficult to identify trafficking if the adult ads were made free. She also said it wasn't feasible for the company to donate any of the profits from the ads to charity because "it's very difficult for advocacy groups to accept money from Backpage because of the public outcry that they'd be taking money from pimps and traffickers."
"You've really got to think about this moral issue of where you stand and how you can work on this," Councilwoman Margaret Chin responded.
"You raise an important point," said McDougall. "Village Voice is a company that has always stood on principle, and that's why they're standing fast by this position. An easy fix would be to take down Backpage, the way Craiglist did. Craigslist got praised as a hero, but it had no practical effect. So Village Voice is committed to its tradition of standing on principle to try to do the right thing despite the tremendous pressure they're getting."
And with that, McDougall was off the hook. She stepped out of the hot seat and into the hall for less than a minute as the next witness took the stand. There was a lot more testimony to be heard, and McDougall rebuffed two reporters who attempted to speak with her.
"I have to be inside for this hearing," she said.
Then she sat down in the back of the room and listened.