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State agrees to work to repeal law opposed by Backpage.com

court1SEATTLE — Washington state has agreed to resolve a lawsuit filed by Backpage.com by providing $200,000 in attorneys’ fees to Backpage and working with the Legislature to repeal a law that was aimed at preventing the sex trafficking of minors online, the state Attorney General’s Office said Friday.

On July 27, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez issued a preliminary injuction against that new Washington state law, which was intended to force Backpage.com and other Web sites to verify the age of people who place online classified sex ads.

In announcing what it called “a settlement,” the state Attorney General’s Office said in a statement Friday that, “The wording of that decision, according to Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, made it very difficult – and expensive – for the state to appeal.

“In yesterday’s settlement, the state will pay Backpage $200,000 in attorneys’ fees and work with the Legislature to repeal SB 6251,” the statement said. “However, it is unlikely that the state will give up its fight to protect kids and others from sex trafficking on Backpage and elsewhere.”

Village Voice Media Holdings LLC, the parent company of Backpage.com, had filed suit in early June, arguing the law is unconstitutional. Martinez granted Village Voice Media a preliminary injunction against the new law, preventing it from taking effect.

“We disagree with Judge Martinez,” said McKenna. “We do not believe that advertisements for a service illegal in every state – prostitution – are protected by the Constitution. That part of his decision would likely be overturned upon appeal.

“But unless Congress acts to revise the section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, an appeal will be extremely challenging and costly. It is unfortunate that because of this ruling, Backpage will continue to profit from sex ads for kids and others. Congress must revisit the CDA in order to close a loophole that allows companies such as Backpage to make millions advertising an illegal service that takes a particularly devastating toll on children,” McKenna said.

On March 29, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law a dozen bills meant to fight sex trafficking, including one aimed at commercial websites such as backpage.com that publish escort ads that have been blamed for exploiting minors for sex.

McKenna, King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg and state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who sponsored the legislation, issued statements opposing the judge’s decision and Backpage.com’s arguments.

Under the new Washington law (Senate bill 6251), an online site such as backpage.com must be able to prove that it made “a reasonable, bona fide attempt to ascertain the true age” of a person depicted in an ad, prior to publishing, through an ID card or other identification.

If not, website officials could be charged with “advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor,” an offense punishable by up to one year in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.

In a statement issued June 4, when the suit was filed, Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media Holdings,  said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle seeks a declaratory judgment that the new Washington law is invalid and a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law.

She said the suit argues, among other things that SB 6251 “violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

“The law purports to apply to anyone who “causes directly or indirectly” prohibited content to be ‘published, disseminated or displayed,’ and so it would make online services like Backpage.com, NWSource.com and craigslist, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo!, and hundreds of other OSPs (online service providers), criminally liable for online content, whether they were aware of the content or not.”

McDougall added, “The trafficking of children for sex is an abomination. I believe aggressive improvements in technology and close collaboration between the online service community, law enforcement and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) is the best approach to fighting human trafficking.

“Unlawful governmental intrusion into the fundamental foundation of a robust Internet that places liability for the criminal acts of third parties on OSPs, which will force criminal conduct back underground and OSPs off-shore outside the reach of law enforcement, is both unworkable and counter-productive in the fight,” she said.

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