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October 27, 2014

A Law and a Lawsuit Aim to Punish Websites for Marketing Trafficked Victims

By Juan Pablo Perez-Sangimino

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is considering three bills on human trafficking, including the controversial Stop Advertising Victims Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which would add more oversight and potential penalties for websites that offer sexual services from trafficked victims.

While the SAVE Act waits in committee, the popular “escort” service website Backpage.com is arguing its case in the Washington State Supreme Court. Three underage girls were rescued from sex slavery, and Backpage advertised their “services.” The victims are now seeking justice.

Jim Grant, the lawyer representing Backpage, claims that under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, companies cannot be held responsible for what users post on their website, lest freedom of speech will be compromised on the internet. Since Backpage did not create or develop the ads, he claims that the website has no legal responsibility for what happened to the victims and that the case should be thrown out. The initial request for the case to be dismissed was declined, so Backpage appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. Arguments were heard on  Tuesday, October 21st.  

Eric Bauer, lawyer for the victims, notes that while Backpage did not write the ads, it does provide advertisers with specific instructions on how to word the advertisements for the best results. By not verifying the ages of those providing services on its website, Bauer says, Backpage is complicit in the mental and physical abuse the victims endured and should be liable to pay restitution.

The justices plan to rule on the case at a later date. If the Washington Supreme Court rules against Backpage, the site operators could be required to pay damages. Similar cases have gone through the courts with less success, including a case dismissed in Missouri. If the victims win the Washington case, it could have wide-reaching implications on what websites are responsible for.

Regardless of how this case concludes, it is a civil lawsuit, not a criminal trial. The SAVE Act, if passed into law, would be a monumental step towards requiring more vigilance from websites and forbidding them from turning a blind eye to human trafficking. If they refuse, those responsible for the website will face steep fines and jail time.

Last week, over fifty attorney generals wrote the Senate committee urging them to pass the SAVE Act and two other anti-trafficking bills: the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act of 2013, which would promote a victim-centered approach to trafficking cases and the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act, which would increase federal penalties for guilty parties as well as provide for victim restitution.