Debate Forum: 11/04

Debate Center: Blame the messenger?

By Sarah Sidlow
Illustration: Jed Helmers

The Washington Supreme Court has elected to hear a case by three Seattle women who claim they were raped multiple times as teenagers and argue the classified service Backpage.com not only made it possible, but profited from it.

The case began in 2012 in Pierce County, Washington, where the three women, identified in the complaint only as S.L., L.C. and J.S., claim to have been sold by a pimp on Backpage.com when they were in the seventh and ninth grades. An attorney for the website, which, after Craigslist, is the second largest classified listing service and is the Internet’s largest source for adult services listings, countered, requesting the case be thrown out. Their argument: because the site did not write the ads, the company cannot be held liable. After a Pierce County judge denied the request for dismissal, Backpage.com appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.

The suit against Backpage.com claims there is little in the website’s guidelines to prevent anyone from posting ads offering prostitution, other than a “posting rules” screen asking users to certify they won’t post any solicitations for illegal services. The site also asks each user to verify he or she is at least 18 years old.

While the pimp (Baruti Hopson, who was convicted in 2011 on multiple counts of child rape) was certainly old enough to post to the site, the adolescents for whom he posted were not.

According to court documents, the site went a step further and instructed advertisers not to use certain words or graphics that would possibly invite law enforcement and/or public scrutiny. The suit further argues that because the company markets itself as an online forum to place escort ads and because the website offers assistance in making those ads more effective, Backpage.com should be held liable for knowingly participating in child sex trafficking.

But the website and its proponents claim that finding fault with Backpage.com would be shooting the messenger. They argue the site is used as a public forum and has no way, or no reason, to closely monitor its content. Specifically, Backpage.com cites the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects an Internet service provider from being liable for the content posted by its users. This is the same act that protects institutions like Facebook and Google from being sued over something said by someone posting on their sites. Whether the site helps posters avoid scrutiny is difficult to determine, and justices are asking both sides whether the website itself is contributing, developing or creating content.

In 2008, Cincinnati’s alternative weekly CityBeat took on a similar argument, filing a suit against Citizens for Community Values (CCV) after the group accused the weekly of knowingly accepting and publishing adult ads of an illegal nature. The lawsuit cited a violation by CCV of CityBeat’s First Amendment rights because the group attempted to regulate what the weekly published and how it did business. CityBeat prevailed, claiming the paper would never knowingly accept an advertisement for illegal activity and that it would not remove the ads of a paid advertiser. Their point: don’t shoot the messenger.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first time the controversial classifieds service has been in the legal arena.

Currently, a case nearly identical to the one in Washington is playing out in Massachusetts, where two alleged victims of underage sex trafficking are accusing Backpage.com of assisting the abuse that occurred more than 1,900 times combined, when they were between the ages of 15 and 17. However, a similar case in Missouri was recently dismissed.

Reach DCP Editor Sarah Sidlow at Editor@DaytonCityPaper.com

 

Commentary Forum Question of the Week:

Should Backpage.com be held responsible for sex trafficking – in this case involving children?

Debate Left: Throwing the victims under the bus

By Marianne Stanley

Holding Backpage.com liable for running ads that enabled the sex trafficking of children is just “shooting the messenger”?  Really?  Surely we haven’t lost our reasoning skills to the level where they’re virtually nonfunctional when issues involve some complexity … or have we? 

Saying that the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects Backpage.com as it has protected Google and Facebook from liability for the postings of its users is comparing apples to oranges.  

The Act’s purpose is to protect online service providers from being held responsible for content placed by third parties. While anyone can post on Facebook and Google, with no staff interaction and no collection of fees for services, Backpage.com is a whole different animal, charging higher ad rates for its “Adult Services” section than in its other sections and using 80 staffers to look over ads before publication, according to Liz McDougall, Backpage.com’s attorney.

Law enforcement agencies scoff at the idea of Backpage.com being an innocent bystander to the sex trafficking of children that occurs there. In fact, according to Polk County (Tampa Bay area) Sheriff Grady Judd, Backpage.com is going to be criminally investigated since it is “abundantly clear to us that they are … facilitating human trafficking.”  

How prevalent is child sex trafficking on Backpage.com? One study, conducted by Arizona State University in 2012, found 80 percent of the ads in the “Adult Services” section were for prostitution, and nearly 10 percent of those featured minors. The math is startling – 900 such ads were posted in just eight days – which translates to approximately 90 girls offered up, without their consent and in exchange for money, to strangers. This is the repugnant, repeated and relentless rape of children. Yet we’re supposed to worry more about a corporation seeking to grow ever richer by using all manner of legal maneuvers and hollow defenses while escaping culpability?

Just as the owner of a car is ultimately responsible for those who have an accident while driving that car and just as a bar owner is ultimately responsible for any minor who is served alcohol in his or her establishment (even if the minor’s I.D. seems to prove legal age), Village Voice Media, as the owner of Backpage.com, must ultimately be held responsible for the ongoing commission of these crimes since it is the overarching vehicle and facilitator.  

While Backpage.com may argue any restriction violates its First Amendment rights, the fact is the First Amendment does not protect speech that hawks anything illegal, whether it’s an act or an object. Perhaps most disgusting is the fact that Backpage.com ostensibly pretends to be concerned about the abuse of children while covertly and actively fighting those seeking to protect minors who are caught in the ugly underworld of prostitution facilitated by the site.  Backpage.com claimed it had won a victory of sorts when U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez recently granted an injunction to prevent the state of Washington’s new law from taking effect, but Martinez disputes that, saying it is just until the case can be heard in court. This new law, signed by Governor Chris Gregoire, would require companies to verify the ages of the people involved in sex-related advertising. Tennessee, New York and New Jersey are also considering similar bills since, as Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna recently said, Backpage.com executives “claim to be allies in the fight against human trafficking … [but] they filed a lawsuit to kill a law written to reduce the number of minors posted for sale online.”  This is duplicity at its worst and complicity in the commission of horrific crimes against children, pure and simple. The girls in Washington’s lawsuit against Backpage.com were only 13 and 15 and had been forced into sexual slavery more than a thousand times and with countless perpetrators. Where are the nationwide outcries and the outrage that would prevent this form of human torture and exploitation from consuming more of our children?

Recently, the mayors of 50 American cities signed a letter urging Village Voice Media to require I.D. for people posting escort ads, saying the site has “inadequate safeguards” and that there is an “urgent need to act quickly” to prevent underage sex trafficking. While the argument is smugly made that shutting Backpage.com down will just send traffickers elsewhere, it is specious. Since when has that ever stopped aggressive pursuit of other crimes and criminals? This, then, isn’t even close to “shooting the messenger” since that phrase implies shooting the one who was merely told to deliver a message, the contents of which are unknown to him. Here, Backpage.com knows exactly what is happening and has chosen not only to continue participating in this horrific crime but to actively fight the citizens, mayors and all those who would cut into their profits by preventing underage sex trafficking. It employs attorneys to stop those who seek nothing more than to protect children from forced sex and violence.

The stench of good old American capitalism-above-all is overwhelming as we all become increasingly inured to the very real suffering of others. It’s time for all of us to examine our moral compasses. We may discover they are no longer working, broken by a society that has lost its way and that ceaselessly celebrates its absence of compassion for virtually anyone who is hurting. Witness the vilification of the unemployed, poor, homeless, hungry or in any way needy. The best way to find our way back to being a civilized nation is to grow our hearts and souls again.

Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing through middle and high school. She can be reached at MarianneStanley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Debate Right: The messenger is not to blame

By Rob Scott

In William Shakespeare’s play, “Antony and Cleopatra,” Cleopatra learns Antony has married another woman. In response, Cleopatra threatens to treat the messenger’s eyes as balls, eliciting the response, “Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.” Essentially, this was the birth of the phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

Now, sex trafficking is a horrific crime. This crime is very prevalent not only in the Dayton region, but throughout the world. Many agencies and nonprofits are attempting to stop it. Police agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and others have set up private sting operations in Dayton over the years in order to catch those who organize sex trafficking rings and those who utilize the illegal service.

There are many other crimes, such as drinking and driving, using and producing illegal drugs, robbery and engaging in child pornography, that are being fought in the same way. When taking human trafficking to task, many believe the avenues used to spread the word about these illegal operations should be at fault. This is similar to holding bar owners liable when someone drinks too much and drives away; holding a gun manufacturer liable when a robbery or murder is committed with a gun it produced; or holding a video camera manufacturer liable when, using a camera it made, someone is found guilty of recording pornography featuring underage children.

Obviously, in the United States we are a litigious society. In most cases, you can sue for many different reasons and in different venues. However, just because someone can bring suit does not mean the claim will be successful.

With the widespread use of the Internet, human traffickers have been able to use multiple forums, including employment sites and social media, in order to operate their illicit trade. Some trafficking cases start with the offender contacting the potential victim on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The techniques used by an offender to gain a victim’s trust vary widely, including expressing love for and admiration of the victim, promising to make the prospect a movie star and providing a ticket to a new location away from the prospect’s home.

Another type of trafficking effort starts with an online employment search and results in an unsuspecting prospect relocating from her home on the promise of an unbelievably good job. After the prospect has joined the offender, various techniques are used to restrict the prospect’s access to outside communication, such as imposing physical punishment unless the prospect complies with the trafficker’s demands and making threats of harm and even death to the prospect and her family.

Offenders then use online services to advertise their illicit businesses. These include sites like Myredbook.com, Eros.com, Cityvibe.com, Adultsearch.com, Craigslist.com, LocalEscortPages.com, FindHotEscorts.com, EroticMugShots.com, MyProviderGuide.com and Backpage.com. Many of these are legitimate services and do not knowingly cater to human trafficking. 

This exact issue is coming to a head in Washington state supreme courts were three females are suing Backpage.com. They claim they were underage victims in the human sex trafficking that was promoted by their offender on Backpage.com. The website, however, claims it does not promote human trafficking and, in fact, attempts to prevent the crime.

When posting on Backpage.com, the user is required to agree to the following: “I will not post obscene or lewd and lascivious graphics or photographs which depict genitalia, actual or simulated sexual acts or naked images; I will not post any solicitation directly or in ‘coded’ fashion for any illegal service, including exchanging sexual favors for money or other valuable consideration; I will not post any material on the Site that exploits minors in any way; I will not post any material on the Site that in any way constitutes or assists in human trafficking; I am at least 18 years of age or older and not considered to be a minor in my state of residence. Any post exploiting a minor in any way will be subject to criminal prosecution and will be reported to the Cybertipline for law enforcement.”

Under this agreement, Backpage.com commits to reporting any activity that constitutes a violation of the terms of agreement by the user. Backpage.com also claims it has a First Amendment right regarding its communications. Additionally, the company claims that, under the Communications Decency Act, it, as an Internet service provider, is not liable for the content posted by its users.

Taking into account all the issues involved with Backpage.com, the company specifically discourages human trafficking activity, it has a First Amendment right and it claims statutory protection under the Communications Decency Act. These considerations ultimately provide the company legal protection against possible suit from those affected by parties who used its website to commit criminal activities.

It comes down to this: Don’t shoot the messenger. Go after those truly responsible for the crime and the wrong.

Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is also a Kettering City Councilman, founder of the Dayton Tea Party, and a member of both the Dayton Masonic Lodge and Kettering Rotary. He can be contacted at rob@oldhamdeitering.com or gemcitylaw.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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