Backpage.com sues over state sex-trafficking law

SEATTLE — The website Backpage.com sued the state of Washington on Monday, saying a new law that would require classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements is invalid, even if it has a laudable goal.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill into law this year in an effort to cut down on child sex trafficking. It allows for the criminal prosecution of classified advertising company representatives who publish or cause publication of sex-related ads peddling children. Proof of a good-faith attempt to verify the age of the advertised person is considered a defense under the law.

Backpage operates a robust online clearinghouse for escorts, and it’s a primary target of the law, which is due to take effect Thursday. The company, which is owned by Village Voice Media, has come under scrutiny from authorities for allegations that it’s used to promote child prostitution.

The company sued in U.S. District Court in Seattle to block the law from being enforced pending a judge’s decision on whether it should be struck down. The law is written so expansively that it would apply not just to classified advertising companies, but to dating sites, blogs, chat rooms and social networking sites, the company argues.

“This means that every service provider — no matter where headquartered or operated — must review each and every piece of third-party content posted on or through its service to determine whether it is an `implicit’ ad for a commercial sex act in Washington, and whether it includes a depiction of a person, and, if so, must obtain and maintain a record of the person’s ID,” the complaint says. “These obligations would bring the practice of hosting third-party content to a grinding halt.”

Backpage argues that the law is trumped by the federal Communications Decency Act, which says online service providers are not responsible for the content of ads placed by third parties. Backpage also says Washington’s law is unconstitutionally vague, infringes on First Amendment rights and attempts to regulate activity outside of Washington state.

“Backpage executives claim to be allies in the fight against human trafficking. Yet today they filed a lawsuit to kill a law written to reduce the number of minors posted for sale online,” Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna said in a statement. “On behalf of the people of Washington state, and on behalf of human trafficking victims everywhere, we will forcefully defend this groundbreaking law.”

The company has been under heavy pressure to change the way it operates. Last month, the mayors of nearly 50 cities across the U.S. — including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas — signed a letter urging Village Voice Media to require identification for people posting escort ads on Backpage.com.

“There is an urgent need to act quickly, as cities continue to find advertisements on your site that reflect underage sex trafficking,” the letter said. “We are making every effort to stop the ongoing trafficking of underage individuals, but these efforts are made more difficult by the inadequate safeguards of your website, Backpage.com, to prevent underage sex trafficking.”

Other states are following Washington’s lead: A similar law soon to take effect in Tennessee, and lawmakers in New York and New Jersey are considering similar bills, according to the federal complaint filed by Backpage.com.

Company lawyer Liz McDougall said that Backpage is “an online industry leader in working cooperatively with law enforcement to identify, arrest and prosecute human traffickers,” and that Washington’s law would force criminal conduct back underground, where it’s harder to track.

“The trafficking of children for sex is an abomination,” she said in a written statement. “I believe aggressive improvements in technology and close collaboration between the online service community, law enforcement and (nongovernmental organizations) is the best approach to fighting human trafficking.”

Village Voice Media owns 13 alternative weekly newspapers around the country, including Seattle Weekly, which already requires ID from those depicted in sex-related ads in its pages.

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