Law shouldn’t protect those who profit from teen sex slaves

Lawyers for Backpage.com seem confident that the latest lawsuit against the website – which is known for its sex-sale ads – won’t get very far.

Maybe. But there’s something to be said for making a business that profits from human trafficking defend itself in court. Backpage.com – which is owned by Village Voice Media – makes about $2 million every month on online sex-sale ads, but every time it is forced to hire lawyers, its dirty business becomes a little more public and a little less profitable.

The latest lawsuit against Backpage.com was filed Friday in Pierce County Superior Court by three girls. Two of the runaways were 13 years old and the third was 15 when they were trafficked on the website, complete with revealing photos. The youngest was advertised as an $80 “special.” Subsequently, they were forced to have sex with scores of men, but the only ones to make any money on the transactions were their pimp and Backpage.com.

The pimp linked to the older girl is now in prison, but what responsibility does Backpage.com have for its complicity in the multiple rapes of underage girls? The pimp may have arranged the illegal acts, but Backpage.com was definitely an accomplice.

The website takes one step to “verify” that those selling sex aren’t minors; it requires the person buying the ad – usually the pimp – to click an on-screen button attesting to the subject’s age. As if a pimp trafficking in young girls is going to be honest.

That was supposed to change after the Washington Legislature passed legislation this past session requiring classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people depicted in sex ads. But on Friday, a U.S. District Court judge put enforcement of that law on hold following a legal challenge by Backpage.com. The judge agreed that the state law seems to conflict with a federal law passed in the Internet’s infancy and should not be enforced until the lawsuit is heard.

Backpage.com’s lawyers argue that it has no legal liability for what is posted on its website because of this line in the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

A line meant to address the free marketplace of ideas – say to protect a media outlet from outrageous postings by commenters – also protects those who are accessories to the sale of minor children for sex? Something’s wrong with this picture.

Several states have followed Washington’s lead in passing legislation restricting online sex sales, but those also are likely to be face legal challenge. The obvious solution is to update the 1996 federal legislation to exclude sex-trafficking.

Commercial speech has never enjoyed the same level of protection as political speech. There’s no good reason to protect those who continue to profit from the misery of child sex slaves.