Classified-ads website Backpage.com is suing Washington state over a new anti-sex trafficking law that the company believes violates the First Amendment and would place an unbearable burden on companies that host third-party advertisements, although it has been shown that its services help facilitate the sex abuse of minors.
On Monday, a temporary restraining order was granted by the U.S. District Court in Seattle and a preliminary injunction is scheduled for this week. Even if the court decides to do away with the law, Backpage will unlikely escape pressure from lawmakers and activists around the country who are trying to shut down the adult section of the website altogether.
"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 Gen. 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 new Washington law, which was supposed to take effect last week, would require companies to provide proof of age for those posting ads for adult services on their websites. A $10,000 fine and up to a year in prison would be imposed on a company if it failed to adequately track and respond to suspicious content being posted by third parties, according to the new legislation.
But Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media, claimed in its lawsuit filed last week that the law would place an unmanageable burden on companies where classified advertisements by third parities are marketed.
"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," Backpage said in its complaint.
"These obligations would bring the practice of hosting third-party content to a grinding-halt," the company added.
Lawyers for the company have also argued that under current U.S. legislation, websites such as Backpage merely host third-party content and do not actually publish it, and therefore cannot be held accountable for what appears on their website – even if the ads have ties to the trafficking of minors for sexual purposes.
In late March, activists from Change.org delivered to the Village Voice headquarters in New York City a petition signed by a quarter of a million people calling for the company to shut down it's adult section. In May, mayors across 50 states signed a letter to Village Voice urging the company to require identification for people posting sex ads on its website, arguing that company safeguards have been inadequate in preventing underage sex-trafficking.
Much of the backlash was stirred by an Oct. 2011 report by the Florida-based classified-ads research firm Advanced Interactive Media Group, which found that 70 percent of prostitution advertisements stem from Backpage. The report also found that the company reported a 50 percent increase in revenue in August of 2011 from the same month during the year prior. The report also found that, since 2010, Backpage had generated over $23.1 million in online revenue from "escort services" and "body rub" ads – which are commonly known as a farce for ads for commercial sex – placed on their website.
Although, as one commenter suggested, trying to keep commercial sex advertisements off of all websites would be like trying to "keep frogs in a bucket," many activists feel that placing legal barriers on companies that profit exponentially from the misfortunes of sex-trafficking victims – many of whom are minors – raises a relevant debate about who can profit from what, when, and why.
"For a website like Backpage to make $22 million off our backs, it's like going back to slave times," one victim who had been advertised in the adult services section of Backpage starting at the age of 17 told Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times in March.
Jimmy Lee, Executive Director of Christian nonprofit Restore NYC, which works with victims of sex trafficking, told The Christian Post, "This is an issue about the $2 million per month that Backpage earns by facilitating the online pimping of women and girls."
"One of the prevailing beliefs of our society is that it is sometimes okay for men to buy sex and that women who are prostituted are always doing this out of free will. Neither is true and both beliefs are destructive. Backpage helps sustain these prevailing beliefs," he added.
"The absolute best step this company can do to fight the horrible injustice of sex-trafficking is to take down these ads. It's a simple and powerful step they can and should take."