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Attorneys general target Internet trafficking

October 21, 2014

Two years after a federal judge struck down a Washington law that targeted websites like Backpage.com, new state and federal efforts are again calling for more oversight of sites that offer "adult services," in the hopes of curbing sex trafficking.

Backpage.com calls those efforts censorship and has argued that, under the Communications Decency Act, they aren't responsible for the actions of subscribers or users.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter Monday to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee urging passage of a bill targeting sex trafficking on the Internet. Ferguson and co-sponsor Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller asked the committee to approve the Stop Advertising Victims Exploitation Act, or SAVE Act. The measure would create new rules for websites that offer adult services. The letter was signed by 53 state and territorial attorneys general. Senate Bill 2536 was introduced by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

"The use of the 'adult services sections' on websites like Backpage.com has created virtual brothels where children are bought and sold using euphemistic labels such as 'escorts,'" the letter said. Passage of the act would ensure "that these websites that are facilitating trafficking through their very business model will have to take steps to verify the identity of individuals posting advertisements and the age of those who appear in these advertisements."

On Tuesday, the Washington Supreme Court hears arguments that also target Backpage.com. The case was filed by lawyers representing three minor children who were sold as prostitutes in advertisements on Backpage.com. They claim the website contributed to some of the content of those ads and thereby helped to promote the victimization of children. They also say Backpage.com can't claim immunity under the Communications Decency Act because, besides hosting the site, it also acts as an "information content provider."

Backpage.com filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit but a Superior Court judge denied the request. The website appealed. Arguments are set for Tuesday.

Washington lawmakers passed a bill in 2012 that imposed a $10,000 fine and up to a year in prison if a website failed to make reasonable attempts to ascertain the age of someone placing an ad for commercial sex. The day it was to take effect, a federal judge issued a restraining order. The law was struck down in December 2012.

Messages seeking comment from lawyers for the website's owner, Phoenix-based Village voice Media Holdings LLC, were not immediately returned.

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