SALT LAKE CITY October 11, 2016 – Attorney General Sean Reyes announced that Utah had joined 20 other State Attorneys General in an amicus, or “friend of the court” brief, challenging a decision that granted Backpage.com broad protection from civil liability even when it took active steps to promote sex trafficking of children. Of the more than 11,800 endangered runaways reported to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children in 2015, one in five were likely victims of child sex trafficking, up from one in six in 2014.
“The internet is increasingly the primary avenue for sex peddlers, including child sex traffickers, to offer the services of their victims for Johns to exploit.” Backpage.com should be held accountable for enabling such predatory conduct to the extent it encourages or fails to take reasonable measures to combat this predatory behavior,” said Attorney General Reyes. “Utah has seen the devastating effects of this kind of illicit exchange just recently when a man seeking sex on Backpage.com stabbed a Utah woman to death and severely injured a second Utah woman after not getting the services he desired.” It is critical that those responsible for enabling any sex exploitation or human trafficking be held fully responsible.”
In the present case, three “Jane Doe” plaintiffs — underage girls who were allegedly marketed for sex through Backpage.com — attempted to sue the website and its operators, only to be turned away by the trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.
Their lawsuit alleges that Backpage’s conduct violates both federal and Massachusetts laws prohibiting companies from benefiting financially from ventures promoting or facilitating child sex trafficking.
In dismissing the suit, the courts cited a provision of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) that provides protection to websites that passively post third-party content without altering it. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act in 1996 in response to fears about Internet Service Providers becoming liable for defamatory statements made by their online users.
The brief was filed in the first week of October in the United States Supreme Court in the case of Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2 & Jane Doe 3 v. Backpage.com. The brief argues that the Communications Decency Act does not protect a website operator from liability when it creates content that actively promotes sex trafficking of children by encouraging use of language that will attract customers seeking children for sex. The brief argues that Backpage.com uses language to encourage payment methods that make financial transactions with the traffickers’ untraceable, strips metadata to impair law enforcement’s ability to locate victims, and deletes “string ads” posted by law enforcement.
In related news, Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, 55, was arrested on October 6, 2016, on state felony charges of pimping children following an investigation by the California Attorney General’s office in coordination with the Texas Attorney General’s office. Two controlling shareholders of Backpage.com, Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 67, have also been criminally charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
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