Missouri Attorney General Unloads on Backpage.com

St. LOUIS (CN) – Missouri’s attorney general Tuesday asked a federal judge to dismiss Backpage.com’s “frivolous” constitutional lawsuit, saying “compelling evidence” shows that Backpage creates and controls ads “for the sexual exploitation and rape of human-trafficking victims, including minors.”

“Federal law does not protect this abhorrent conduct. Backpage’s complaint is frivolous,” Attorney General Joshua Hawley says in the motion.

Hawley began investigating Backpage in May. It responded with a lawsuit in July, claiming the investigation violated its First Amendment rights, and that his demands for more than seven years of records constituted unreasonable search and seizure.

“That lawsuit is meritless,” Hawley said at a news conference Tuesday. “It is a shameless attempt to stop our investigation and keep my office and the people of Missouri from getting the truth about Backpage.”

Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com, told Courthouse News the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Hawley’s 34-page motion, part of almost 400 pages of evidence submitted to the court Tuesday, states that substantial and compelling evidence shows a direct link between Backpage and the sex industry.

The motion cites a U.S. Senate subcommittee’s finding that “Backpage is involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) receives from the general public.”

Backpage claimed in its lawsuit that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits state-law civil or criminal claims against internet websites and publishers based on content created by third parties.

“Considered the most important law in the country protecting free speech online and fostering development of the Internet unfettered by government interference or regulation (as Congress expressly intended), Section 230 has been applied in over 300 cases to hold websites immune and state laws preempted,” the lawsuit states.

Hawley dismissed that argument out of hand.

“Federal law does not protect illegal trafficking activities,” he said at the news conference. “The First Amendment does not protect illegal trafficking activities. It does not protect websites that solicit illegal ads. It does not protect people who create those ads and seek to profit from them and the evidence that we have put on the record today suggests that Backpage has done all of the above.”

In fact, on the very day that Backpage sued Hawley, July 11, “The Washington Post published a stunning exposé concluding that Backpage does in fact create and control the content of human-trafficking ads on its website, and that Backpage’s attorneys have deceived federal courts on this issue for years,” Hawley, a Republican, says in the complaint.

During the news conference, provided a phone recording of what Hawley claims is a conversation between a contractor working for Backpage in the Philippines and a sex worker being recruited to advertise services for free on Backpage.

Hawley’s motion cites a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report released on Jan. 9 that he says shows Backpage’s direct involvement in creating sex ads.

“The Report describes how Backpage implemented a sophisticated and wide-ranging system by which the company (1) identified posts involving patently illegal commercial sex, including sexual exploitation of minors; (2) revised the content of those posts to avoid attention from law enforcement, but without preventing potential buyers from realizing that the posts involve illegal commercial sex; and then (3) re-posted the advertisements on Backpage’s website rather than blocking them or contacting law enforcement,” the motion states. “The search terms used by Backpage to identify and scrub posts for this process highlight the depraved nature of the ‘services’ that Backpage actively concealed, including numerous buzzwords associated with sex trafficking of minors.”

The motion states that starting in 2010, Backpage automatically deleted words including “Lolita,” “teenage,” “rape,” “young,” “little girl,” “teen,” “fresh,” “innocent,” “school girl,” and “Amber Alert” — and published the edited versions of the ads on its website.

“Rather than reporting this criminal activity to law enforcement, Backpage took steps to conceal the posts’ illegality and then published them, earning tens of millions of dollars in the process,” the motion states.

“It is time for Backpage to stop stonewalling and come forward with the truth, because I can promise you I’m not going to stop until I get it,” Hawley told reporters.

He asked the court to dismiss Backpage’s lawsuit with prejudice.

Also Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators, including Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, introduced legislation in Washington that would hold websites such as Backpage liable criminally, to ensure justice for sex trafficking victims.

The bill states that materials gathered during a two-year investigation into Backpage found that Backpage knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and girls and covered up evidence of these crimes to increase its own profits, McCaskill said on her official website.

“I’m hopeful that the prosecutors that have criminal jurisdiction will be anxious to get this information and use it accordingly on any cases where they think someone in their jurisdiction has been victimized,” McCaskill told reporters.

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