Three new plaintiffs joined the legal battle against online classifieds behemoth Backpage.com with lawsuits filed this Tuesday in federal courts in Arizona and Florida. Backpage is the go-to place to purchase a human being—including children—for sex on the Internet. Even though it abruptly shut down its “adult services” section last month, ads selling exploited adults and children have moved to the “dating” section of the website, and Backpage’s other “escort” online classified websites, Nakedcity.com, Evilempire.com, and Bigcity.com, are still open for business.
The plaintiffs in the new lawsuits, human rights organizations Florida Abolitionist and Sojourner Center, along with a Jane Doe plaintiff, allege Backpage “knowingly benefitted financially” from sex trafficking advertised on its website, in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). The plaintiffs also allege Backpage deliberately designed its business practices to facilitate sex trafficking.
Plaintiffs filed the lawsuits to coincide with the release of documentarist Mary Mazzio’s film “I Am Jane Doe,” which tells the stories of middle school aged girls who were trafficked and sold for sex on Backpage. The film, which premieres nationwide today, documents the legal battle the survivors and their families waged against Backpage. A part of that legal battle ended in early January, when the Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by one of the Jane Doe plaintiffs featured in the film. Courts have dismissed other survivor lawsuits against Backpage because Backpage has successfully argued it is protected from suit by the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which says that websites cannot be liable for content their users create and post.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which conducted a 20-month investigation into Backpage, recently published a report that casts serious doubt on whether the CDA protects Backpage. The CDA only protects websites when they “passively display” content created entirely by third parties, not if they have a role in developing content or if they create content themselves. The Senate report reveals that Backpage crafted its ad editing policies to delete entire phrases out of ads, such as “teen,” “Lolita,” “young,” and “fresh.” By re-writing the ads, Backpage stripped them of indicia of illegality so they appeared “clean,” all while knowing the ads involved prostituted persons and sex-trafficked children.
Armed with the evidence in the Senate report—evidence that was not available to earlier Jane Doe plaintiffs—the new lawsuits plead facts that persuasively show Backpage is not entitled to CDA protection. In the meantime, Backpage faces a slew of other legal problems. A lawsuit brought in Washington state court will go to trial in May. Backpage owners Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey, and James Larkin face pimping and money laundering criminal charges in California. Facing tough allegations in the two new lawsuits, even more legal challenges are to come. Stay tuned.
Sojourner Center, Florida Abolitionist, and Jane Doe are represented by women’s legal defense fund Legal Momentum and famed litigator David Boies. “I Am Jane Doe” will screen in the Philadelphia area starting today at AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24.