Judge: Backpage.com Likely To Prevail In Challenge To Sex Trafficking Law
A federal judge has issued an injunction blocking the state of Washington from enforcing a sex trafficking law that imposes new policing duties on Web sites.
U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle ruled that the law appeared to conflict with the federal Communications Decency Act, which provides that Web sites aren't responsible for posts by users.
The law, SB 6251, makes it a felony for Web site operators to allow users to post explicit or "implicit" prostitution ads that contain images of minors, unless the sites obtain drivers' licenses or other identification of the individuals depicted.
Village Voice Media's listings site Backpage.com sought a court order banning enforcement of the measure. The Internet Archive, which maintains an online library of old Web pages (including those of Backpage.com), intervened in the case in order to join the classified site in challenging the law.
Both Backpage and the Internet Archive asserted that the law conflicted with the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes sites from liability when users upload illegal material. That immunity is what enables Web companies to offer users interactive platforms without monitoring their posts.
Martinez ruled that Backpage and the Internet Archive were likely to prevail in their challenge. "By imposing liability on online service providers who do not pre-screen content or who 'know' that third party content may violate state law, the statute drastically shifts the unique balance that Congress created with respect to the liability of online service providers that host third party content."
Martinez issued the 39-page decision late Friday, one week after he held a hearing on whether to block the law. He previously issued a temporary restraining order banning state Attorney General Rob McKenna from enforcing the law, but that order was only valid until the parties presented their cases at a preliminary hearing. The new injunction will persist until the case goes to trial, which might not occur for many months.
In addition to conflicting with the Communications Decency Act, the Washington law also is so broad that it potentially infringes free speech, according to Martinez.
He said sites like Facebook could face liability under the law. "A teenager’s Facebook profile, aimed at her teenage friends but of course available to the world, teeming with the kinds of scandalous, provocative photographs and musings that are typical for some in this age group, could also fall under the language of SB 6251," he wrote.
McKenna and other state officials said they disagreed with the decision and will consult with lawmakers and prosecutors about their options.