Just because no case law yet holds Backpage.com responsible for exploiting children, that does not mean the classified ad site should always be immune from liability. The fact is Backpage.com and other sites like it create an environment where pimps can easily post ads every night selling girls (and boys) for commercial sex work. They do so through methods that include the use of prepaid credit cards and by refusing to verify the ages of scantily clad photo subjects.
The Washington state Supreme Court has a chance to do something about these degrading business practices by allowing a case against Backpage.com to move forward in Tacoma.
During oral arguments at the Temple of Justice on Tuesday, attorney Erik Bauer argued on behalf of three girls who came under the control of pimps when they were young teenagers — two were in the seventh grade; a third was 15 year old. The trio is now suing Backpage.com for damages after their exploitation led to countless beatings and rape by adult customers.
“Backpage.com is an Internet content provider. These ads didn’t happen by accident,” Bauer said. “It’s a systemic corporate effort to make a lot of money by marketing the nation’s children, including the children of the state of Washington.”
In response, Backpage.com attorney James Grant said a key section of the federal Communications Decency Act was meant to preserve free speech on the Internet.
This might be true, but what about the rights of children to not be subjected to rape and abuse? Backpage.com can try to turn a blind eye to the consequences of its business practices, but its attorneys claim that it deserves “complete immunity” and no liability “for content passed by third parties” also makes it a willing accomplice to crimes against children.
Here’s a key question from Justice Barbara Madsen to Grant that leads me to believe the justices will keep this case alive rather than dismissing it per Backpage.com’s wishes:
What about a service provider that encourages a certain kind of content? I understand the cases haven’t been as receptive to that argument by plaintiffs. But nevertheless there seems to be some room there for the courts at least to explore. So it’s not simply that you’re a neutral party. You’re encouraging a certain kind of content, and why shouldn’t there be some responsibility when you encourage a certain kind of content?
Case law might be on Backpage.com’s side for now, but the justices should stir the legal pot and send a signal to the federal government to take another look at what the Communications Decency Act should or should not protect. Force Backpage.com to defend its very lucrative but shameful practices.
Let the three girls involved in this case have their day in court so that other children might be spared the suffering they endured as victims of sex trafficking.
For more background on this case, read The Seattle Times’ Oct. 3 editorial against dismissing the lawsuit known officially as J.S., S.L., and L.C. v. Village Voice Media Holdings, et al. I followed up on Oct. 17 with a blog post featuring excerpts from various amicus briefs filed by anti-sex trafficking organizations on behalf of the plaintiffs. On Monday, the editorial pages featured this guest column from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.