Three Washington girls sue website

Escort service site fails to prevent sex trafficking, suit says

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TACOMA -- Three teens who say they were sold online for sex have sued Backpage.com, accusing the website's owners of enabling their exploitation. Two 13-year-old girls from Pierce County and one 15-year-old from King County filed the lawsuit Friday in Pierce County Superior Court.

Seattle attorney Liz McDougall, who represents Backpage's corporate owners, Village Voice Media of New York, said the lawsuit will not pass legal muster and is barred by federal law.

Backpage, a popular website for escort services, has been under pressure to change the way it operates. In May, the mayors of nearly 50 cities across the U.S. signed a letter urging Village Voice Media to require identification for people posting escort ads on Backpage.com.

"Is it proper for some outfit, for some entity, to make millions of dollars not only in trafficking women, but even more importantly trafficking children?" asked Seattle attorney Mike Pfau, who, with Erik Bauer, represents the teens. "No."

The suit alleges that photos of the underage girls appeared in several ads, paid for by their pimps, on the site in 2010. It accuses the owners of doing too little to prevent it. The website requires ad buyers to click a button to verify that the users are 18 or older, but the lawsuit alleges it's not much of a deterrent.

"Other than requiring the poster of the ad to agree to this term by clicking on the posting rules page, Backpage.com does nothing to verify the age of the escorts," the complaint said.

The company's attorney offered sympathy for the young women, but supported the website's stance.

"The stories of the girls identified in the complaint are tragedies. However, the commercial sex exploitation of children is an extremely complex problem …," McDougall wrote in an email. "Backpage.com is at the forefront of fighting it intelligently online."

Also Friday, Backpage won a victory in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez granted an injunction that halts a new state law that would require classified ad companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements. The law had been set to take effect in June. The decision is temporary until the full case can be heard in court.