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October 17, 2014 at 12:02 PM

King County, Washington state must remain at forefront of fight against sex trafficking and Backpage.com

Earlier this week, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg joined with community groups and seven local law-enforcement agencies to announce a new effort to crack down on the commercial sex industry by focusing on the thousands of  johns who fuel the demand for this illicit trade.

On Wednesday, Seattle Times reporter Sara Jean Green wrote about how recent stings have led to 105 arrests within three months. That same day, a new coalition that includes the Organization of Prostitution Survivors outlined plans to catch more buyers, deter them from committing crimes and help them to understand the harm their actions inflict upon vulnerable women and girls. The editorial board commended the collaborative project as a meaningful step toward saving these victims from a life of enslavement and manipulation by pimps.

A high number of sexual encounters these days are initiated online via seedy adult classifieds ads on sites such as Backpage.com. (King County reports there are at least 100 sites frequented on a daily basis by about 27,000 men countywide.)

As King County and police officers in Seattle, Kent, SeaTac, Federal Way, Bellevue and Des Moines prepare to take a tougher approach toward arresting and prosecuting more buyers, keep an eye out for potential actions from the state Supreme Court.

Next Tuesday, the justices will hear arguments for a case in which three girls are suing Backpage.com for damages after their former pimps posted their photos and advertised them for sex services online. Once they were able to escape the life, the juveniles reported they were repeatedly raped and beaten. The Seattle Times published an editorial on Oct. 3 that encouraged the court to allow this case to move forward in Pierce County Superior Court.

Internet companies such as Backpage.com have tried to argue they are immune from liability when ads on their site are posted by a third party. The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an amicus brief repeating claims the Communication Decency Act is meant to promote free speech on the Internet.

Several nonprofits that work extensively with trafficked victims have filed briefs on behalf of the girl, including the National Crime Victim Law Institute, Shared Hope International, Covenant House and Human Rights Project for Girls.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has met with Backpage.com executives on numerous occasions. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington, D.C.,-based organization’s court filing:

Subsequent to these meetings, Backpage has made minimal, but largely ineffective, adjustments to its practices, and it continues to facilitate the sale of children for sex on its website. Backpage voluntarily reports only selective information to NCMEC about ads suspected of child sex trafficking. NCMEC refers these ads to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. Those reports account for what NCMEC believes to be only a small fraction of the children trafficked online at backpage.com.

FAIR Girls, which has saved thousands of child victims of sex trafficking over the past 11 years, also wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs. The nonprofit disclosed its efforts to post an ad in Backpage.com’s escort section warning potential buyers of the harms caused by trafficking. According to the brief, Backpage.com emailed FAIR Girls and offered to relocate the ad to the website’s “community” section:

This clearly indicates that Backpage.com does in fact review and decide which content may be placed in the “Escort” section of Backpage.com…

Advertisements with clear sexual content pass through the Backpage.com screening process on a regular basis, however, advertisements that do not suggest sexual exchanges do not.

When FAIR Girls found a photo of one of their saved clients still being advertised on Backpage.com, they tried to report the offense. Here was Backpage’s response:

“Thanks for bringing these ads to our attention and reporting them to us. We have tried to remove as much of the content as we could find.”

The ad with the victim remained on the site.

In the state of Washington’s amicus brief, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson asserted that the Communications Decency Act “was not meant to create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet.” Here’s an excerpt:

It was intended to immunize legitimate websites that serve as mere conduits for content created by third parties. In other words, (Section) 230 immunity is appropriate where a challenged website is engaged in displaying legitimate, lawful content and the offending material unpredictably originated entirely from a third party. In contrast, assuming the truth of Plaintiffs’ allegations, Backpage.com’s entire business model is predicated on advertising prostitution and similar illicit activities, including sex with children, and it actively encourages and develops that specific advertising content through its methods of operation…

And finally, here’s a section culled from the amicus brief of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:

The trial court agreed with Respondents’ assertion that Backpage.com’s posting rules and content requirements are a thin facade and that Backpage.com serves largely as a hub for sex trafficking. Consequently, if the Court grants Backpage.com Section 230 immunity, the purpose of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) will be perverted only to protect websites, not children, and a legal protection will be carved out for the rapidly-growing internet marketplace of trafficking in women and children for sex.

Watch streaming video of the oral arguments on TVW.org.

Comments | Topics: backpage, king county, prostitution

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