Commentary

Backpage Similar To 'Silk Road,' Victims Tell Court

A group of teen sex trafficking victims has asked a federal appellate court to revive their lawsuit accusing Backpage.com of facilitating trafficking through the design of its online classifieds site.

The teens' lawyers argue that the online classified site's business model "generates enormous profits from knowingly participating with and aiding traffickers in the sexual exploitation of children."

A federal judge in Boston dismissed the teens' lawsuit earlier this year, ruling that the Communications Decency Act immunizes Web services companies from liability for crimes by users. “Congress has made the determination that the balance between suppression of trafficking and freedom of expression should be struck in favor of the latter in so far as the Internet is concerned,” U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns wrote in a 34-page ruling. “Putting aside the moral judgment that one might pass on Backpage’s business practices, this court has no choice but to adhere to the law that Congress has seen fit to enact.”

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Lawyers for the teens say that Stearns made the wrong call. They argue that Backpage is similar to Silk Road, whose operator, Russ Ulbricht, is now serving a life sentence for conspiring to sell drugs and launder money via the site.

"Backpage was not merely acting as a publisher when it knowingly operated and protected an online marketplace for illegal transactions similar to those that produced federal criminal [conviction] ... against the owner of Silkroad.com, a marketplace for illegal drugs and other contraband," the teens' lawyers argue in a brief filed on Monday with the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

They add that the Washington Supreme Court recently revived a lawsuit against Backpage by a separate group of sex trafficking victims. In that case, the court said that the teens should have an opportunity to prove that Backpage went beyond serving as an intermediary by "developing" illegal content.

Backpage also is fighting a separate courtroom battle against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in Illinois, who recently lobbied credit card companies to de-fund the site.

Earlier this year, Visa and Mastercard said they would no longer process payments for Backpage.com. Both credit card companies ended their relationship with Backpage after receiving letters from Dart, who told the companies that sites like Backpage "promote prostitution and facilitate online sex trafficking."

Backpage argues that Dart's campaign threatens the existence of the entire site, not just the adult ads section. U.S. District Court Judge John Tharp in Illinois initially issued a restraining order that prohibited Dart from lobbying credit card companies against Backpage. But Tharp allowed that order to expire after Dart presented evidence showing that Mastercard and Visa were already considering ending their relationship with Backpage before he got involved.

Backpage is now asking the 7th Circuit to reverse that decision. "The record provides ample evidence the companies terminated Backpage.com because they felt threatened by Sheriff Dart," the company argues. "But even if that were not so, Dart would still be liable because, at the least, he provided 'significant encouragement' for Visa and MasterCard to comply with his demands, and they undisputedly complied."

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