3 teens claim Backpage.com enabled their exploitation
TACOMA, Wash. — Three Washington teenagers who say they were sold online for sex have sued the website Backpage.com, accusing the website’s owners of enabling their exploitation.
Two 13-year-old girls from Pierce County and one 15-year-old from King County, which encompasses Seattle, filed the lawsuit on July 27 in Pierce County Superior Court, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported yesterday.
Seattle attorney Liz McDougall, who represents Backpage’s corporate owners, said the lawsuit would not pass legal muster and was barred by federal law. The site is owned by Village Voice Media in New York.
Backpage is a popular online destination for escort services. The company has been under heavy pressure to change the way it operates.
In May, the mayors of nearly 50 cities across the U.S. — including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Philadelphia — signed a letter urging Village Voice Media to require identification for people posting escort ads on Backpage.com.
“Is it proper for some outfit, for some entity, to make millions of dollars not only in trafficking women, but even more importantly trafficking children?” asked Seattle attorney Mike Pfau, who with Erik Bauer represents the teens. “No. It is absolutely unacceptable.”
The lawsuit alleges that photos of the underage girls in skimpy garb appeared in numerous ads on the site, paid for by their pimps. It accuses the owners of doing nothing to prevent it. The actions described in the complaint date to 2010.
The website require ad buyers to click an on-screen button to verify that the users are 18 or older, but the lawsuit alleges it’s not much of a deterrent, the News Tribune reported.
“Other than requiring the poster of the ad to agree to this term by ‘clicking’ on the posting rules page, Backpage.com does nothing to verify the age of the escorts who appear in its prostitution ads, even though it knows that pimps are usually the ones who create the ads, or force their minor sex slaves to do so,” the complaint said.
McDougall, the company’s attorney, offered sympathy for the young women.
“The stories of the girls identified in the complaint are tragedies. However, the commercial sex exploitation of children is an extremely complex problem on the streets and online, and it must be fought intelligently,” McDougall wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper.
“Backpage.com is at the forefront of fighting it intelligently online with a triple-tier prevention system and an unparalleled law enforcement support system.”
Also on July 27, Backpage attorneys won a procedural victory in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez granted an injunction that halts a new state law that would require classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the law this year to cut down on child sex trafficking. The law received unanimous approval from the Legislature and had been scheduled to take effect in June, but courts have put its implementation on hold.
The decision Martinez issued on July 27 stops the law from taking effect until the lawsuit challenging it can be heard in court.
Backpage.com and a nonprofit that runs a popular archive of Internet sites asked for the preliminary injunction.
Backpage makes millions of dollars a year operating an online clearinghouse for escorts. The company was the main target of the new law.
The Washington law would allow for the criminal prosecution of anyone who knowingly publishes or causes the publication of sex-related ads depicting children, unless they can show they made a good-faith effort to confirm that the person advertised was not a juvenile.
Backpage and Internet Archive argue the new law violates the Communications Decency Act of 1996, as well as the First, Fifth, and 14th Amendments and the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In his ruling, Martinez found merit in some of their arguments that the state law would conflict with existing federal law. He also drew a distinction between the idea of the law and the reality of its enforcement.
“At first blush, requiring publishers to check identification before publishing an escort ad seems as commonsensical as requiring bar owners to check identification before allowing patrons to enter the door,” Martinez wrote.
But he goes on to say there is a key difference between the two because one asks for identification related to conduct and the other tries to impose the rule as it relates to speech. He notes that there is no constitutional right to drink, but there is one for free speech.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna disagreed with the ruling and promised to continue to work with lawmakers and county prosecutors on their legal options.
“Rather than fight the selling of children through responsible business practices, Backpage has chosen to fight in our courts those who battle human trafficking. While they are entitled to do that, we will do all that is within our power to see that they fail,” McKenna said in a statement.
Efforts to reach Village Voice Media for comment were unsuccessful.
Democratic state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who sponsored the new law, said Martinez’s ruling proved it was time for Congress to take another look at the Federal Communications Decency Act.
“I also disagree that the Constitution provides protections for speech advertising illegal activity,” Kohl-Welles said in a statement. “One thing remains clear: We must continue the war against sexual exploitation of children.”