There is no doubt that the internet has long been used as a tool to facilitate sex crimes against children. Despite the efforts of specialized law enforcement units and other concerned advocates, child pornography and even ads for child sex trafficking are abundantly available online.
Perhaps the most infamous, non-anonymous player in child sex trafficking online is the website Backpage.com. The site offers classified ads, similar to Craigslist and others. However, it is notorious for its “adult services” section, which is often full of ads for prostitution – sometimes thinly veiled and other times overt.
Anti-trafficking advocacy groups say that the site makes it easy for sex traffickers to advertise minors for sale and to remain anonymous while making it much more difficult to remove ads flagged as illegal. In the past, the site has allegedly failed to remove pictures of minors reported by their own family members, but has removed or refused to post sting ads placed by law enforcement agencies.
For years, Backpage.com has managed to shield itself from liability by hiding behind a provision in the Communications Decency Act of 1996. That provision essentially says (or has been interpreted to say) that providers of internet services cannot be held legally liable for content posted by third parties who use their services.
But one lawsuit is challenging that shield, and the plaintiffs have the support of nearly 50 organizations dedicated to ending the sex trafficking of minors. The three plaintiffs are girls from Washington State, ages 13 and 15.
They allege that Backpage.com published sale pitches about them along with pictures of them, and these illegal ads resulted in the girls being repeatedly raped by customers. The lawsuit claims that Backpage.com not only created an illegal online marketplace, but that its owners “police it in bad faith.”
Officials for Backpage.com have tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, citing protections under the CDA. Thankfully, the trial court has refused to dismiss it. The plaintiffs are seeking damages from the website, but this lawsuit could also potentially be a first step in shutting down the website entirely.
We have said before – and it’s worth repeating – that neutrality is not an option when it comes to child sex abuse. If site owners know that Backpage.com is being used for child sex trafficking and they refuse to effectively police postings, they cannot be surprised when they are accused of collusion.
Source: The Huffington Post, “Is Backpage.com Liable?” Kevin M. Ryan, Sept. 12, 2014