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News / Northwest

Backpage asks Washington high court to toss lawsuit

Three girls were sold as prostitutes on site

The Columbian
Published: October 21, 2014, 5:00pm
2 Photos
People opposed to child sex trafficking rally outside of the Washington state Supreme Court on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. The court was hearing a case filed by three victims who say the website Backpage.com helps promote the exploitation of children.
People opposed to child sex trafficking rally outside of the Washington state Supreme Court on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. The court was hearing a case filed by three victims who say the website Backpage.com helps promote the exploitation of children. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte) Photo Gallery

When the Clark County Sheriff’s Office goes undercover to catch child sex traffickers, it often starts with one website: Backpage.com.

It’s a hot spot for targeting pimps in this area who are selling minors for sex.

“It used to be Craigslist (but) it got enough public heat they stopped carrying those ads. Backpage still carries them,” said Sgt. Duncan Hoss with the sheriff’s office. “Backpage seems to be the most accessible one.”

Washington’s Supreme Court justices considered arguments Tuesday from an attorney representing Backpage. He argued the website is protected by federal law from being sued over its content. An attorney representing three underage victims of sex trafficking said the website is liable for the content published on its website.

When the Clark County Sheriff's Office goes undercover to catch child sex traffickers, it often starts with one website: Backpage.com.

It's a hot spot for targeting pimps in this area who are selling minors for sex.

"It used to be Craigslist (but) it got enough public heat they stopped carrying those ads. Backpage still carries them," said Sgt. Duncan Hoss with the sheriff's office. "Backpage seems to be the most accessible one."

Washington's Supreme Court justices considered arguments Tuesday from an attorney representing Backpage. He argued the website is protected by federal law from being sued over its content. An attorney representing three underage victims of sex trafficking said the website is liable for the content published on its website.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has co-sponsored legislation that would shut down Backpage and similar websites. In an email, she wrote that it's wrong for websites "to hide behind the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act to knowingly advertise the selling of minors."

"I hope the Supreme Court rules in favor of the victims in this case, but if they don't I'll keep fighting so that Congress closes this loophole for websites who are profiting from the exploitation of teens and children," she wrote.

Not long ago Hoss would never have expected child sex trafficking to be a prevalent problem in Clark County.

Now he's a believer.

For years, he's worked to tackle what he calls a growing problem.

Shutting down the website could help, he said, but added it's a multifaceted problem.

"If there is a market for it, someone will feed the market to get rich off it," he said.

Kay Vail, a probation counselor with Clark County juvenile justice, has worked with victims who have been sold through the Backpage website.

From 2011-13, she said the county had identified 59 minors who had been trafficked locally.

Parents should monitor their children's social media activities and be suspicious if they suddenly have items they shouldn't be able to afford, such as hair extensions, she said.

"It's important to get educated so we can help prevent this victimization," Vail said. "The pimps, whether male or female, are master manipulators."

-- Lauren Dake

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has co-sponsored legislation that would shut down Backpage and similar websites. In an email, she wrote that it’s wrong for websites “to hide behind the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act to knowingly advertise the selling of minors.”

“I hope the Supreme Court rules in favor of the victims in this case, but if they don’t I’ll keep fighting so that Congress closes this loophole for websites who are profiting from the exploitation of teens and children,” she wrote.

Not long ago Hoss would never have expected child sex trafficking to be a prevalent problem in Clark County.

Now he’s a believer.

For years, he’s worked to tackle what he calls a growing problem.

Shutting down the website could help, he said, but added it’s a multifaceted problem.

“If there is a market for it, someone will feed the market to get rich off it,” he said.

Kay Vail, a probation counselor with Clark County juvenile justice, has worked with victims who have been sold through the Backpage website.

From 2011-13, she said the county had identified 59 minors who had been trafficked locally.

Parents should monitor their children’s social media activities and be suspicious if they suddenly have items they shouldn’t be able to afford, such as hair extensions, she said.

“It’s important to get educated so we can help prevent this victimization,” Vail said. “The pimps, whether male or female, are master manipulators.”

— Lauren Dake

SEATTLE — A lawyer told the Washington Supreme Court on Tuesday that a lawsuit filed by three young girls who were sold as prostitutes on a website that carries personal ads for people looking for sex should be thrown out because his client didn’t write the ads, so it’s not liable.

But the victims’ lawyer said the website, Backpage, doesn’t have immunity under the federal Communications Decency Act because the website markets itself as a place to sell “escort services” and provides pimps with instructions on how to write an ad that works, making them a participant in the largest human-trafficking website in the U.S.

The justices plan to rule on the case at a later date.

Before the hearing, several dozen people stood in the rain on the court steps with signs that read: “People’s bodies are not commodities,” “End Child Slavery” and “Stop Buying Our Girls.”

“No one has the right to sell a kid for sex,” said Jo Lembo, with Shared Hope International. “That’s why we’re here. Someone has to speak up for them. They’re kids.”

A similar case was filed last week in federal court in Boston, but a previous case in Missouri was dismissed, said Yiota Souras, a lawyer with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “The Washington state case has gone further than any previous case,” she said.

Suggesting they might be skeptical about Backpage’s argument, the justices asked lawyer Jim Grant about the website’s content.

“Your client wouldn’t say with a straight face that ‘escort service’ doesn’t mean something else most of the time,” Justice Steven Gonzalez asked.

Justice Charles Johnson asked whether this was an “ostrich issue.”

“We escape liability if we stick our head in the sand and not pay any attention — as long as you don’t affirmatively contribute?” Johnson asked.

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Grant said when Congress wrote the communications act, it wanted to preserve free speech on the Internet so it gave immunity to websites like Backpage for things posted by users or members of the site.

“Backpage did not create or develop the ads,” he said. And holding it responsible would chill that speech, he said.

But Erik Bauer, the victims’ lawyer, said his clients were in 7th and 9th grade when adult professional sex traffickers sold the girls as prostitutes on Backpage. The pimps knew they could run their ads anonymously, he said.

“They claim they have immunity from having pimps sell children on their website,” Bauer said. “There’s a massive amount of human sex trafficking on their website.”

While Backpage didn’t write the ads, it helps develop them in part, he said. It also gives advertisers specific instructions on what the ads should say in order to be successful, Bauer said.

Justice Debra Stephens asked Bauer if the website has a tool to scrub information to make it anonymous. If it did, it might be liable for that tool, she said.

Justice Mary Yu asked if Bauer thought he would find more evidence that Backpage was creating or writing ads if the case went forward and he said he believes the records reveal how deeply it’s involved in the developing and marketing the ads.

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