SEATTLE – The Washington State Attorney General’s Office yesterday settled a lawsuit filed by sex trafficking site Backpage.com against Washington state.
Backpage, which calls itself “an ally in the fight against human trafficking,” sued Washington over a law aimed at preventing kids from being advertised online for sex. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo S. Martinez’s issued a decision granting Backpage’s preliminary injunction against SB 6251. The wording of that decision, according to Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, made it very difficult – and expensive – for the state to appeal.
“We disagree with Judge Martinez,” said McKenna. “We do not believe that advertisements for a service illegal in every state – prostitution – are protected by the Constitution. That part of his decision would likely be overturned upon appeal. But unless Congress acts to revise the section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, an appeal will be extremely challenging and costly. It is unfortunate that because of this ruling, Backpage will continue to profit from sex ads for kids and others. Congress must revisit the CDA in order to close a loophole that allows companies such as Backpage to make millions advertising an illegal service that takes a particularly devastating toll on children.”
At least two of McKenna’s colleagues agree:
· “In 1996, federal lawmakers passed the CDA in order to make the Internet a forum for ideas, while also protecting kids from crimes such as child pornography,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster. “But they never intended to enable websites to generate millions in profits by promoting prostitution, particularly when we know that a portion of that profit comes from advertising kids for sex.”
· “Indiana learned from hosting the 2012 Super Bowl that trafficking of humans for prostitution is a horrendous crime that is enabled and amplified by online adult classified sites such as Backpage,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said. “The urgency of the problem led Indiana to pass a new human trafficking law in record time. We share the concerns of our fellow Attorneys General in urging Congress to address on a consistent national basis this complicated issue of Internet businesses that facilitate human trafficking.”
The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996 in response to fears about Internet Service Provider (ISP) liability for defamatory statements made by their online users. It was intended to protect ISPs and Web sites from tort liability for materials posted by third parties. “Backpage executives see the CDA as a license to make money from prostitution ads without any accountability,” McKenna said earlier this year in a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG).
Backpage, which charges a minimum of $5 to post ads for prostitutes, has been criticized for the number of children found to be advertised for sex on the site. Hundreds of such cases nationally have been identified by local and federal law-enforcement. Earlier this year, Washington state lawmakers passed SB 6251 to protect kids by adding new penalties for posting sex ads featuring minors. The law provided a built-in defense for sites that check IDs before allowing individuals to post so-called “adult services” ads. Backpage quickly filed a lawsuit, naming county prosecutors and the state.
In yesterday’s settlement, the state will pay Backpage $200,000 in attorneys’ fees and work with the Legislature to repeal SB 6251. However, it is unlikely that the state will give up its fight to protect kids and others from sex trafficking on Backpage and elsewhere.
“Washington state lawmakers, Republican and Democrats alike, are national leaders on this important issue,” said McKenna. “I encourage them to keep the pressure on Backpage and other sex trafficking profiteers.”
McKenna, who made the fight against human trafficking a centerpiece of his work leading NAAG, in 2011, rallied his fellow state attorneys general to put pressure on Backpage to stop trafficking kids and others on their site. Ultimately all 50 states joined the effort. Backpage also faced petition drives and protests around the country. The trafficking site’s parent company, Village Voice Media, ultimately cut ties with Backpage. But Backpage continues to operate and arrests of those advertising kids and others on the site continue.