A 15-year-old sex trafficking victim has sued Village Voice Media for allegedly turning a blind eye to prostitution ads on Backpage.com.
The teen, identified in court papers as M.A., says that she was prostituted at age 14 by an adult, Latasha Jewell McFarland, who allegedly posted Backpage.com ads that featured M.A.'s photo and advertised her as a paid escort for sex. The lawsuit, filed late last week in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri, says that Village Voice Media aided and abetted prostitution as well as the exploitation of children and child pornography by failing to investigate the ads.
The complaint also alleges that Backpage.com "had a strong suspicion" of the crimes, but didn't delve into user-created ads because it "had a desire that these posters accomplished their nefarious illegal prostitution activities so that the posters would return to the website and pay for more posting."
McFarland recently pleaded guilty to crimes related to the teen's allegations, according to the lawsuit.
Village Voice Media did not respond to requests for comment. But legal experts say that the the federal Communications Decency Act typically immunizes sites from civil liability for unlawful posts by users.
The law has some exceptions, including one involving federal crimes. M.A. says in her complaint that she is relying on that carve-out.
But a federal court a 2006 ruling in a similar case might give a boost to Backpage.com. In that case, a judge in Texas ruled that a carve-out for crimes only applies when federal authorities bring criminal charges against sites, and not when private individuals sue. The judge in that action dismissed a lawsuit against Yahoo alleging that the company allowed users to share child pornography through the "Candyman" group.
M.A.'s lawyer, Robert Pedroli, says that the lawsuit against Village Voice Media involves different facts than the case against Yahoo. "I don't think Yahoo really knew what was going on in their Web site," he says. "I don't think the other lawyers could allege aiding and abetting because Yahoo doesn't have a section for perverts."
But Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman says that allegations about aiding and abetting criminal activity are irrelevant to the question of whether sites are immune from private civil lawsuits.
Matt Zimmerman, an attorney with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, adds that allowing individuals to sue in civil court when users make unlawful posts would discourage online publishers from allowing users to post any material.
"As a general matter, the more you make intermediaries responsible to screen their content, the more you're going to have perfectly legitimate content withdrawn form the Web, because intermediaries don't have the time or resources to evaluate every post on a one-by-one basis," he says.
The lawsuit against Backpage.com comes almost three weeks after Craigslist stopped carrying adult ads amid pressure by law enforcement authorities. Some advocates for victims of child sex trafficking also had blamed the site for hosting adult ads, arguing that people were using the site to exploit children.
Last week, a Craigslist executive testified at a congressional hearing about child sex trafficking that the site had already seen adult ads migrate to other companies.