A Forbes writer takes a pro-law enforcement swipe at Jack Dorsey's Cash App, conflating adult sex work (legal and illegal) with sex trafficking and child porn.
A recent article in Forbes by the magazine’s associate editor, Thomas Brewster, accuses the popular money-transfer giant Cash App of being the “payment tool of choice” for sex trafficking and child sexual abuse material (CSAM), aka, child pornography.
However, Brewster’s piece, “For Sex Traffickers, Jack Dorsey’s Cash App Is ‘King,’” is undercut by its problematic assumptions, such as conflating all sex work with illegal sex work — including sex trafficking and child sex trafficking. His attempt to shame Cash App for the crimes of others follows a familiar trend of browbeating interactive computer services into becoming extensions of law enforcement.
Brewster largely uses government and law-enforcement sources to villainize the Block, Inc.-owned entity for, supposedly, not policing its transactions enough and for not sending information on suspect transactions to the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a national nonprofit founded by an act of Congress and funded by the U.S. government, which serves as a national clearinghouse for tips about child exploitation.
Jack Dorsey, the erstwhile head of Twitter, co-founded Cash App’s parent company, Block, and now serves as Block’s CEO. Cash App competes with PayPal and the PayPal-owned Venmo in the market for instant money transfers. Users provide a phone number or email, adopting a handle called a “cashtag” as an identifier and often linking to a bank account. The ease of use has made the app wildly popular with the general public. Brewster reports that “this June, 47 million accounts carried out transactions on Cash App,” generating “$705 million in the most recent quarter.”
Brewster quotes a Cash App representative as stating that the site allows no illegality and that it complies with all laws. But Brewster’s sources seem to want Cash App to go beyond its statutory obligations and thoroughly investigate and police its users.
The article itself offers a classic example of guilt by association. When Forbes puts “Jack Dorsey” and “sex trafficking” in a title next to a photo of a grinning male with a gold tooth emblazoned with a dollar sign, it knows exactly what it’s doing.
Ironically, the Forbes article, taken to its logical conclusion, risks making it harder for law enforcement to combat crimes against children. We know this because something similar happened when the feds closed the classified listings site, Backpage.com.
When You Assume . . .
Brewster paraphrases unnamed cops and nonprofits as saying that “child exploitation,” brings in “billions in gross profit every year for Block, Inc.” Brewster has two main sources: law enforcement officials and filings from criminal cases where Cash App was used by a perpetrator.
He also makes a dangerous assumption: that all sex work is illegal and that most or all adult ads involve some form of trafficking.
Joe Scaramucci, a detective who set up the human trafficking unit for the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco, Texas, says that in his experience, outside of physical cash, Block’s tech is the primary payment tool used by people selling sex, whether they’re trafficking adults or children. Searching a police database of sex ads for ‘CashApp’ in Waco returned 2,200 ads, compared to 1,150 for PayPal and 725 for Venmo, a PayPal-owned rival, according to data provided by Scaramucci. Similar data put together by the Arizona attorney general shows that between 2016 and 2021, there were 480,000 online sex ads where Cash App was listed as a form of payment, nearly double that of nearest rival Venmo at 260,000. For sex traders, ‘Cash App is king,’ Scaramucci said.
Brewster accepts the Waco detective’s casual conflation of “people selling sex” with “trafficking adults or children,” and Brewster implies that most or all “online sex ads” involve the latter. But there are legal forms of sex work, including most adult pornography and the online performances of adults on OnlyFans. And there is a distinction in the law between adult prostitution and sex trafficking.
Prostitution is essentially consensual commercial sex between adults, and it is normally charged as a state misdemeanor, one that most Americans believe should be decriminalized.
By contrast, sex trafficking is a far more serious crime that involves either children, or the inducement of adults into the sex trade via force, fraud or coercion. By law, minors cannot consent to sex, so the prostitution of children is always considered sex trafficking, or more specifically, “child sex trafficking.”
Throughout his piece, Brewster jumbles together legal and illegal sex work, sex trafficking, child sex trafficking and child pornography as if they are equivalent.
A mention of the adult listings site, Skipthegames.com, is misleading, using phrases like “sex crimes,” “sexualized images,” and “sex with minors” interchangeably:
But as Cash App has grown in revenue and popularity, so has its use in sex crimes. Hundreds of pages of court filings describe cases where law enforcement said Cash App was used to either pay for sexualized images or sex with minors and adults. Among the filings referencing Cash App were multiple instances where a victim was trafficked on Skipthegames.com, one of the largest sex advertisement websites. That included one recently unsealed investigation where a victim in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was just 17 years old. A search for “Cash App” and “CashApp” on Skipthegames.com collectively returned nearly 900,000 results, compared to 470,000 PayPal and a similar number for Venmo.
“Hundreds of pages of court filings”? As opposed to hundreds of actual cases?
First, Brewster discusses court cases involving “sex crimes” and “sexualized images or sex with minors and adults.” Then he slides right into a statistic involving a search for “CashApp” or “Cash App” on Skipthegames, returning “nearly 900,000 results.”
Juliana Piccillo, a Tucson-based filmmaker and former sex worker who co-founded Tucson’s chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), read the article and concluded that it was “about conflating child porn and trafficking with sex work.”
The article employed tactics similar to those who believe in the abolition of prostitution, she said.
“Because the numbers aren’t there for trafficking, any numbers that they do throw out are for just adult ads period, not even hazarding to guess as to what percentage of these adult ads might be trafficking,” she explained.
She pointed out that many forms of sex work are legal in the U.S., and not just in parts of Nevada. Adult sex workers can legally sell videos of themselves, articles of their clothing, and generally engage in online interactions — all perfectly legal. In addition, escorting is legal throughout the U.S. and is regulated by many cities and counties.
The assumption that all adult advertising involves illicit sex is simply wrong. Moreover, how would Cash App be able to tell that a cash transaction involved sex for money without access to communications that could be occurring on other sites or apps?
“Even the cops can’t prove you’re breaking the law with sex work very easily,” Piccillo noted, adding, “One thing might lead to another, or it might not. It very rarely involves a clinical exchange — so much so that law enforcement often can’t make the charges stick.”
The Backpage Experience
As readers of this site know, the pursuit of Backpage by state Attorneys Generals, sheriffs, various elected officials and now the U.S. Department of Justice has demonstrated time and again that people, including trained investigators, cannot simply assume illegality when it comes to adult-themed advertisements for things such as massage, escorts and dating that once appeared on Backpage before it was seized and destroyed by the federal government.
In one of the best examples, Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit admonished Cook County, IL, Sheriff Tom Dart about the content of Backpage’s “adult services” section.
In a 2015 decision that was praised by Forbes at the time, Posner observed:
Nor is Sheriff Dart on solid ground in suggesting that everything in the adult section of Backpage’s website is criminal, violent, or exploitive. Fetishism? Phone sex? Performances by striptease artists? (Vulgar is not violent.) One ad in the category ‘dom & fetish’ is for the services of a ‘professional dominatrix’—a woman who is paid to whip or otherwise humiliate a customer in order to arouse him sexually . . . It’s not obvious that such conduct endangers women or children or violates any laws, including laws against prostitution.
The district judge remarked ‘that the majority of the advertisements [in Backpage’s adult section] are for sex’—but a majority is not all, and not all advertisements for sex are advertisements for illegal sex. There is no estimate of how many ads in Backpage’s adult section promote illegal activity; we just gave examples of some that do not.
Interestingly, the federal government’s theory of prosecution in the ongoing case involving veteran newspapermen and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin has been that “anyone could tell” the adult-themed ads on Backpage were for prostitution.
But this theory blew up in prosecutors’ faces during the September 2021 trial of Lacey, Larkin and four others on charges related to the facilitation of misdemeanor state prostitution laws under the U.S. Travel Act.
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Brian Fichtner, a California cop who had investigated Backpage in 2015, admitted under cross-examination that the ads themselves were facially legal.
Fichtner said he had never arrested anyone for prostitution based on the content of an adult ad, nor did he know of anyone who had. He also conceded that escorts are legal and regulated, and that he could not say that an act of prostitution had occurred unless he was a witness to what occurred.
Brewster quotes sources at the Justice Department and NCMEC lamenting that they’ve never received tips from Cash App about illegal activity, though Brewster concedes that Cash App responds to subpoenas and warrants as they must. The court cases involving underage victims that Brewster cites in his piece say as much.
In fact, the reality is that without Cash App, the police may not have had the paper trail to pursue those indictments.
Backpage bent over backwards to cooperate with law enforcement, answering subpoenas within 24 hours, training investigators, and testifying at the trials of traffickers, even receiving an award from the FBI to boot. As for NCMEC, Backpage reported hundreds of suspect postings a month to NCMEC, with NCMEC once complaining that they were receiving too many.
Prosecutors turned this cooperation against Lacey, Larkin, et al. The feds’ superseding indictment cited past examples of Backpage execs testifying at traffickers’ trials as evidence of supposed knowledge of wrongdoing on the site.
Backpage’s tips to NCMEC? Prosecutors claim it was all subterfuge, part of an alleged conspiracy to profit from prostitution. Prosecutors spent much of their time in the first trial improperly mentioning or eliciting testimony about child sex trafficking, with which the defendants are not accused. This blatant misconduct by government attorneys triggered a mistrial. A retrial is scheduled for June 20, 2023.
“Even the cops can’t prove you’re breaking the law with sex work very easily . . . One thing might lead to another, or it might not. It very rarely involves a clinical exchange — so much so that law enforcement often can’t make the charges stick.” — Juliana Piccillo, Tucson filmmaker and former sex worker
Piccillo sees the pressure on Cash App as similar to the pressure Backpage encountered for many years to drop all adult ads, regardless of their legality. She says Cash App has been known to kick sex workers off its site and block them, as other financial institutions and apps have done. She believes critics of the company want Cash App to try to ban all adult sex workers from the site, thereby having a “chilling effect” on consensual adult sex work.
She notes that sex workers can currently use various payment apps to help vet clientele and make themselves safer. In one paragraph, Brewster suggests sex workers prefer Cash App to actual cash, because cash is easier for others to rip off. But Piccillo said this would only be true of more privileged sex workers. For those on the street, cash, not Cash App, is king.
Even if Cash App’s critics are well-intentioned, the Backpage example shows how such sentiments can go awry. Both the passage of FOSTA/SESTA (which effectively made adult ads illegal in the U.S.) and the destruction of Backpage forced adult advertising overseas to sites that do not respond to American subpoenas or cooperate with its law enforcement. (For instance, Skipthegames’ domain is registered in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal and regulated.)
Without Backpage assisting their efforts, law enforcement officials have reported great difficulty in rescuing endangered women and children and prosecuting their exploiters.
A blanket ban by Cash App on those simply suspected of consensual adult sex work could have a similar, negative effect. Cash App has one advantage over actual greenbacks: It provides a digital trail that can be tracked if need be.
The drive to get Cash App to somehow ban all adult sex workers reminds one of “Operation Choke Point,” the federal government’s campaign in the 2010s to pressure banks and credit cards not to process transactions from “disfavored” businesses — like gun shops and payday lenders.
Actually, some of the fiercest opposition to Operation Choke Point at the time came from writers for Forbes magazine.
Which is the big reason why Brewster’s article, and its extralegal definition of third-party guilt for the crimes of others, seems so odd by comparison.
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