Child Prostitutes Hold Backpage’s Feet to Fire

     OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – Backpage.com does not have immunity from claims by three young teenagers who were prostituted on the website, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled, finding that it may have intentionally crafted pimp-friendly policies.
     The plaintiffs, identified in court records only by their initials, say they fell into the grips of pimps after running away from home.
     Two of them were 13 at the time, and the third plaintiff was 15. The girls say their pimps advertised on Backpage.com, an escort website owned by Village Voice Media Holdings, and that adults who answered the advertisements raped them multiple times.
     They sued Village Voice Media Holdings and Backpage.com in Pierce County Superior Court for negligence, outrage and sexual exploitation of children.
     The defendants claimed that they were immune from the 2012 suit under the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that says an interactive computer service is immune from state-law liability in relation to “merely hosting” illegal content on a website.
     J.S., S.L. and L.C. contend, however, that the defendants, described collectively in the court record as Backpage, did more than host the ads.
     They said the website developed content requirements to “assist pimps and prostitutes in avoiding detection so that Backpage.com can continue profiting from their illegal activities.”
     Backpage appealed after the trial court denied it immunity, and the state Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Thursday that the case should go to trial.
     “The plaintiffs before us have been the repeated victims of horrific acts committed in the shadows of the law,” Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote for the majority. “They brought this suit in part to bring light to some of those shadows: to show how children are bought and sold for sexual services online on Backpage.com in advertisements that, they allege, the defendants help develop. Federal law shields website operators from state law liability for merely hosting content developed by users but does not protect those who develop the content.”
     Gonzalez said the plaintiffs have thus far have sufficiently alleged that “the defendants helped to produce the illegal content and therefore are subject to liability under state law.”
     Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, writing for the dissent, said Backpage was not a content provider and could claim immunity. Pimps, not Backpage personnel, wrote the advertisements in question.
     The case will be sent back to superior court for trial.

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