Backpage.com Urges Dismissal Of Teen's Sex Trafficking Lawsuit

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Arguing that it is immune from liability, Village Voice Media has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by a teenage sex trafficking victim.

The media company argues that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act shields it from liability for unlawful ads placed by users. "Even defamatory, harmful and despicable content is covered by Section 230 -- with the effect that Internet intermediaries are not liable for that content, and liability rests solely on the original author," Village Voice argues in a motion to dismiss filed last week.

Backpage was sued in September by a teen identified only as M.A., who says she was prostituted at age 14 by an adult woman, Latasha Jewell McFarland. M.A. alleges that McFarland posted Backpage.com ads that featured M.A.'s photo and advertised her as a paid escort for sex. M.A.'s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri, says that Village Voice Media aided and abetted prostitution by running the ads without investigating them.

In an amended complaint filed earlier this month, M.A. argues that the Communications Decency Act's immunity provisions don't apply because, she alleges, Village Voice helped develop the ads. "The website is a highly tuned marketing site with search tools, adult sex focused categories, and directions and features offered regarding how to increase the impact of your ads for a fee," M.A. argues. "Defendants advertise its website to increase page views of the ads; defendants removes spam from its website to increase page views of placed ad," M.A. adds. "All of these acts make defendants the creators and developers of the posted advertisements."

But Backpage.com counters that none of those actions deprive it of immunity, saying that neither organizing listings or segregating adult content creates liability.

Separately, rival listings company Craigslist recently shuttered its adult services listings worldwide, leaving Backpage.com as the major U.S. publisher of paid-sex ads, according to AIMGroup.com.

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