A lawsuit brought by three girls, who alleged they were sold for sex in the “escort” section of the Backpage.com website have secured a settlement agreement. The trial in the case was scheduled to begin this week in Pierce County, Washington.
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The plaintiffs alleged they were between 13 and 15 years old when they were advertised for sex on Backpage.com. Each of the plaintiffs claimed, in the 2012 court filing, that a sex trafficker paid Backpage.com a small fee to post their sex ads in the “escort” section of the website.
The girls alleged their complaint that the website should be held liable because it “knowingly developed a nationwide online marketplace for illicit commercial sex” and did so “because of the millions of dollars that they generated from the website every month.” The plaintiffs claimed the website had a practice of “altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality” and then “publishing the ‘sanitized ads’ for a fee.”
The lawsuit was the first in the country to defeat the website’s argument that it is immune from sex trafficking lawsuits under the Communications Decency Act. Passed in the mid-1990s to promote the growth of the internet, the CDA gives websites immunity from lawsuits for content posted by third parties. Both the trial court and the Washington Supreme Court rejected the website’s argument that the CDA protected it from the plaintiffs’ allegations.
Erik Bauer, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said, “I cannot discuss the terms of the settlement because it is confidential. We settled on mutually agreeable terms and our clients are pleased with the result.”
One of the plaintiffs, known as J.S., stated, “I hope the evidence we discovered in our case will help other survivors of sex trafficking. The CDA should not be a defense to profiting from child sex trafficking. Children who are sold for sex online should not be told that they are the cost of doing business for technology companies that are older than I am.”
Bauer’s co-counsel, Seattle attorney Michael Pfau, said, “Backpage tried to have our case thrown out by claiming it was immune under the CDA. They went so far as to claim they had a system for preventing sex trafficking of minors. The Washington courts were the first in the country to rule that we should have a chance to test what the website was claiming. In the end, we believe we showed their system was designed to promote sex trafficking, not prevent it.”
Jason Amala, another attorney for the plaintiffs, stated, “A number of their top executives refused to answer nearly all of our questions and invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Even their in-house lawyer could not explain how removing terms like ‘amber alert’ or ‘lolita’ helps to fight child sex trafficking. In our view, they were just sanitizing sex ads to reduce the chances that they would have to remove the ads and make less money.”
On January 9, 2017, Backpage.com shut down the “escort” section hours after the United States Senate issued a scathing report about the company’s alleged role in online sex trafficking. According to the Senate report, the website generated $135 million in revenue in 2014, and the vast majority of that revenue was from sex ads. The website claimed the “escort” section was shut down due to allegations of “censorship” by the United States government.
The attorneys are shifting their focus to other lawsuits they have helped file against the website, including two more cases in Washington, one in California, and one in Texas. The lawsuits include allegations based on evidence obtained in the Washington case that settled.
For example, one of the complaints alleges that Backpage.com’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, sent an email where he said it would be “too harsh” to ban advertisements that contained words or images that indicated the ad was for sex. Instead, Ferrer allegedly said it was “[b]etter to edit by removing bad text or removing bad language” so that users could “adjust.” The complaint cites the email as evidence that the website intentionally sanitized sex ads so that it could profit from the ads.
Bauer believes many more sex trafficking victims are likely to come forward: “Thousands of children have been sold for sex on that website. They are starting to come forward as they realize people support them, not those who profit from sex trafficking.”
The lawsuit featured prominently in a recent documentary about online sex trafficking. Titled “I Am Jane Doe,” the documentary premiered earlier this year and chronicles lawsuits by multiple families to hold Backpage.com liable for alleged sex trafficking of minors. All but the Washington case were dismissed because of the CDA.
Two controversial bills have been proposed in Congress in response to the attention generated by the Washington case, the Senate report, and “I Am Jane Doe.” Both bills state that the CDA does not provide immunity to entities that knowingly promote sex trafficking. Google’s vice president of public policy, Susan Molinari, called the proposed legislation a “disaster” while at the same time saying “Backpage.com can and should be held accountable for its crimes.”
Three cases remain pending against Backpage.com in Washington filed on behalf of two teenage girls who are identified as R.O. and K.M., in California filed on behalf of a teenage girl who the complaint identifies as “Jane Doe,” and Texas, filed on behalf of a teenage girl who identified as “J.M.”