Backpage Urges Supreme Court To Reject Appeal Over Escort Ads

Online classifieds company Backpage is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand a decision dismissing a lawsuit against the company by a group of sex-trafficking victims.

Backpage argues in papers filed this week that a trial judge and appellate panel correctly ruled that the Communications Decency Act, a 20-year-old federal law, immunizes the company from liability for crimes by users.

Backpage's argument comes in response to a request by the teens to revive their 2014 lawsuit accusing the company of encouraging sex trafficking through the design of its Web site. The teens, who said that pimps posted ads about them in Backpage's escort section, argued that the company created an online marketplace "devoted to facilitating the sale of children for sex."

A trial judge in Boston dismissed the case last year, ruling that Backpage was protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling earlier this year. "Congress did not sound an uncertain trumpet when it enacted the CDA, and it chose to grant broad protections to internet publishers," the appellate judges wrote in a unanimous decision.



Lawyers for the teens then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.

On Wednesday, Backpage officially opposed that request. Among other arguments, Backpage says the earlier decisions are consistent with numerous other decisions dismissing lawsuits against Web companies.

"It is undisputed that the online ads giving rise to petitioners’ claims were created, developed and posted by third-party users, not," the company says. "As courts have observed for 20 years, Section 230 was intended to prevent the 'obvious chilling effect' that would occur if websites were held liable for third-party content, given the enormous amounts of such content posted online every day."

The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether Section 230 immunizes Web companies when users post unlawful material. But numerous other courts have sided with Web companies on that question.

The first major federal appellate decision in the area, which was issued in 1997, involved a lawsuit against AOL. In that case, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said AOL wasn't liable for defamatory statements posted to its message boards. Tech companies including Craigslist,MySpace, Google and Facebook have since prevailed in lawsuits by people who sought to hold the sites responsible for crimes or other activity by users.

Regardless of whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear the teens' appeal, Backpage faces other legal issues. Three company executives were recently charged in California with "pimping." A judge said recently that he is likely to dismiss those charges, but hasn't officially done so yet.

Also, the U.S. Senate recently held Backpage in contempt for refusing to turn over materials to a subcommittee investigating online sex trafficking.

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