Backpage Presses To Stop Missouri AG's Sex-Trafficking Investigation

Classifieds site Backpage is pressing a federal judge to shut down Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley's attempts to investigate whether the company facilitates sex trafficking through its online ads.

"The State has not identified any single ad on Backpage.com that was allegedly unlawful," Backpage writes in court papers filed late last week. "Instead, the AG demands documents relating to millions of ads and editorial decisions (and much more) in hopes of finding something upon which to base a claim against Backpage."

The site's papers mark the latest development in a battle over alleged sex-trafficking ads between Backpage and Hawley. Last month, Backpage asked U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Patricia Cohen in St. Louis to issue an injunction blocking Hawley from enforcing a "civil investigative demand" that would require Backpage to turn over seven years' worth of records relating to operations and editorial practices.

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Hawley's office has said it is investigating whether Backpage violated a state consumer protection law that bans unfair and deceptive practices. But Backpage counters that the federal Communications Decency Act trumps state laws, including Missouri's consumer protection measure.

In January, Backpage said it would shutter its "adult" ads section, which observers said mainly contained prostitution ads. But since then, many of those ads since appear to have migrated to other sections of the site.

The company's fight in Missouri is the latest in a long string of clashes with state law enforcement officials over ads related to sex trafficking. Backpage -- which has successfully sued state officials in Washington, Tennessee and Illinois -- argues that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects web sites from prosecution for ads posted by users.

Hawley argued in a motion filed two weeks ago that Backpage's request for an injunction was premature, writing that "an agency need not demonstrate that it will prevail in a future enforcement action in order to enforce a subpoena."

The attorney general also argues that Backpage may not be entitled to immunity due to evidence that the company "has played a direct and active role in creation, soliciting, and promoting advertisements for illegal commercial sex on its website."

Backpage counters in its most recent papers that the only relevant question is whether the ads were created by users -- as opposed to factors such as whether the site promoted the ads.

"Section 230 immunity cannot be evaded by attacking a website’s overall design and operation or by claiming it invited or solicited unlawful content," Backpage argues. "The issue is who authored, created, and posted the particular content that allegedly caused harm."

In addition, Backpage noted that Hawley recently joined with 49 other attorneys general in a letter urging lawmakers to revise the Communications Decency Act. The attorneys general wrote in that letter that some judge have broadly interpreted that law, resulting in Backpage's immunity from prosecution by state and city officials for crimes by users.

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