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Cult Corner: ‘I Am Jane Doe’ Exposes The Child Trafficking Horrors of the Internet

Where to Stream

I Am Jane Doe

When we talk about streaming culture, we’re usually enthusing about what’s new, but one of the best things about streaming is how it’s made old and obscure cult hits available to a new generation. Presenting Cult Corner: your weekly look into hidden gems and long-lost curiosities that you can find on streaming.

It’s hard to find a documentary that’s more fundamentally disturbing than I Am Jane Doe, Mary Mazzio’s eye-opening look into the work of internet-enabled child exploitation. Through a court case against Village Voice’s Backpage.com, the documentary explores the deeply disturbing ways popular websites can and do solicit child prostitution as well as the sites that are willing to turn a blind eye to this source of profit. I Am Jane Doe is an incredibly difficult watch, but it’s a worthwhile one.

Mazzio’s documentary starts from an intensely human angle, focusing on the stories of three victims of child trafficking, J.S., M.A., and Jane Doe. Though the names of these young women are never used in the documentary, I Am Jane Doe takes care to tell each of their stories through their parents and loved ones. Each story is more horrifying than the last, focusing on how these young women were lured into into unsafe situations by manipulative older men. In every case, those relationships lead to these young women advertising themselves through online channels. These recollections are deeply sad, telling stories of girls as young as 14 being raped repeatedly and stumbling back home after running away, now addicted to hard drugs. When the documentary finally pulls back a layer and reveals almost all of these horrific crimes can be traced back to one website — the Village Voice’s Backpage.com — it’s sickening.

However, it’s not the underage crimes that remain the most shocking element of this documentary. It’s the court case. I Am Jane Doe focuses on the victims’ case against the website, arguing that the seemingly no-rules environment of Backpage.com helped enable child exploitation. It’s an argument that’s difficult to dispute, especially since the demands from the victims’ families are relatively small. Most of he doc’s interviewed subjects mainly wish for Backpage.com to be disabled. That’s what makes the Village Voice’s steadfast fight for its site so shocking. The documentary walks through the stages of Backpage.com’s trial. From the confused ramblings of the case’s assigned judge to a memorable moment when an executive member of Village Voice fails to appear before court after being subpoenaed, it’s all very frustrating. This is also a story that continues to be frustrating. As recently as this January, it was revealed that the Supreme Court will not hear at Backpage.com’s case.

However, despite its sickening content and outrage-inducing depictions of the central case, I Am Jane Doe raises several essential questions about the relationship between advertising, the internet, ethics, and the law. It also takes the time to call out several major companies — including Google — that donated to Donors to the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group that helped fund the case from Backpage.com’s side. I Am Jane Doe is not a fun watch. It depicts a gross corner of the internet that remained unchecked for too long and has been defended too much. That being said, in our increasingly digital age, it’s an essential documentary.

Stream I Am Jane Doe on Netflix

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