Online classifieds site Backpage will ask a federal appellate court to block Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley from proceeding with an investigation of the company, court records reveal.
Backpage, which is fighting multiple lawsuits by sex-trafficking victims, recently sought a court order preventing Hawley from enforcing a demand for seven years' worth of records related to operations and editorial practices. Hawley's investigation centered on whether Backpage's ad practices -- including its controversial practice of allowing thinly veiled prostitution ads -- violated a state consumer protection law that bans unfair and deceptive practices.
Last year, Backpage said it would shutter its "adult" ads section. But since then, many of those ads appear to have migrated to other sections of the site.
In late November, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Cohen in St. Louis denied the company's request to enjoin Hawley, ruling that the federal court lacked grounds to get involved in the battle between Backpage and Hawley. "In this case, there are (or were) adequate opportunities for Backpage to present its federal claims in the state-court action," Cohen wrote.
The company recently filed the paperwork to appeal that decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Backpage had argued to the trial judge that Hawley's investigation should be blocked on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act protects web sites from prosecution for illegal ads posted by users.
Hawley countered that Backpage may not be entitled to immunity due to evidence that it "played a direct and active role in creation, soliciting, and promoting advertisements for illegal commercial sex on its website."
Cohen dismissed Backpage's request without ruling on whether the company was entitled to immunity for ads related to sex trafficking.
Congress is considering amending the Communications Decency Act by allowing sex-trafficking victims to pursue civil lawsuits against some websites that ran prostitution ads, and enabling state officials to prosecute businesses that violate federal sex-trafficking laws.