Digital Rights Groups Urge Dismissal Of Sex Trafficking Lawsuit Against Backpage

Siding with, digital rights advocates are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the company deliberately designed the online classifieds site in order to facilitate sex trafficking.

The complaint against was filed last October by three individuals who say they were sold for sex on when they were minors. Two of the plaintiffs are still teens, while the third is now 20 years old. None are identified by name in the court papers. The plaintiffs allege that Backpage (along with related companies Camarillo Holdings and New Times Media), violates a host of laws, including federal and state laws against sex trafficking and a state law against unfair and deceptive conduct.

Backpage, which has prevailed in at least one similar prior case, argues that the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes the company from liability for crimes by users.



The digital rights groups are urging U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns in Boston to accept Backpage's argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed at an early stage on the grounds that Web services companies are immune from liability for crimes by users.

“If online service providers were required to engage in protracted and expensive litigation whenever plaintiffs alleged that they were harmed by user-generated content hosted or transmitted by intermediaries, these online platforms for users’ speech would inevitably become more expensive, more restrictive, and ultimately less available for individual expression,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology and Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman argue in a friend-of-the-court brief filed this week.

The sex-trafficking victims argued in papers filed earlier this year that Backpage (and its parent company) can't claim that immunity because they weren't “truly neutral intermediaries.” The victims allege that Backpage and the other companies “designed, continuously refined, and operated a website that has become the dominant player in the online sex trade.”

They also assert that even though Backpage has publicly said it takes steps to curb sex ads, those measures only “provided the facade of concern.”

“Backpage Defendants developed a plan to minimize the attention devoted to its activities by the public and by law enforcement agencies, particularly concerning children,” the victims allege. “This plan protected the ability of traffickers to advertise underage girls for sale, and helped to burnish’s reputation among human traffickers as a 'safe' and favorable place to advertise sex trafficking victims.”

But the digital rights groups say that Congress decided years ago that platforms like Backpage aren't responsible for the actions of users who place ads on the service. “The Internet would be a far more limited forum if Web sites were forced to second-guess their decisions about hosting content that they themselves did not author,” the organizations argue.

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