Online classifieds company Backpage.com is asking a federal judge in Tacoma, Wash., to dismiss a lawsuit by three teens who say they were advertised as prostitutes on the site.
"Under well-established federal law ... content created by third parties cannot form the basis for liability against providers of online services," the company argues in legal papers filed last week.
The teen victims -- who say they were forced into prostitution by adults -- argue that Backpage.com "conspires with pimps and prostitutes to advertise prostitutes." The minors add that Backpage.com's efforts to police the listings -- such as by forbidding explicit language and photos -- are counterproductive. The teens say the site's requirements give Backpage.com "the facade of minimal respectability," but actually "assist pimps and prostitutes in avoiding detection."
They contend: "Backpage.com is very adept at requiring the 'proper window dressing' techniques to conceal the illicit and illegal nature of the activities it knows are occurring through its website, including the sex trafficking of children."
Their lawsuit, filed last year, lists a host of counts, including negligence, sexual exploitation of children and invasion of privacy. The teens who are suing are identified only by their initials in the court papers.
Backpage contends that the case must be dismissed because the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes it from liability for ads created by users. "Congress enacted the CDA to preserve free and open speech on the Internet and to encourage self-regulation by online service providers," Backpage argues in its motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
"Plaintiffs’ claims against Backpage.com, if allowed to proceed, would turn this federal law and Congressional intent on its head, imposing liability on Backpage.com for its efforts to monitor and prevent improper content."
Backpage previously won a nearly identical lawsuit brought by a teen sex trafficking victim. In that case, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert III in the Eastern District of Missouri ruled in August of 2011 that the site was immune from liability.
The company also recently succeeded in convincing judges in Washington state and Tennessee to block a law that would have imposed criminal liability on Web publishers who display some prostitution ads.
While one influential appeals court ruled in 2008 that federal law doesn't immunize Web companies that actively develop illegal ads, Backpage says that ruling doesn't hurt its case because it does not develop ads. "The law applying the CDA is clear that a website that merely makes available a forum for third-party content -- in this case online classified ads -- does not thereby develop the content, nor cause users to post unlawful or improper content," the company argues.