Activists protest Backpage’s underage prostitution ads in 2012.

Activists protest Backpage’s underage prostitution ads in 2012.

Last week, anti-trafficking advocates fighting Backpage.com, the classified advertising website that has been accused of facilitating commercial sexual exploitation of children, gained a hard-fought legal victory. In Washington State, the state Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that Backpage could be held accountable for commercial sexual exploitation in the case of three girls sold on the site. The girls, who were 13 and 15 when they were sold for sex online, will have their claim for damages against Backpage.com move forward in a court of law. Backpage.com had attempted to dismiss the suit under the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that websites cannot be punished for simply hosting content developed by other users. Backpage.com’s motion was denied, however as major anti-trafficking and child protection groups such as National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Rights4Girls, Shared Hope International and Covenant House contributed supporting amicus “friend of the court” statements on behalf of the girls.

The case itself represents part of larger discussion about the balance between respecting free speech protections in the United States and the responsibility of internet service providers to monitor and report content that induces or condones child sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation of children. Free speech advocates claim that Backpage.com and other classified advertising websites function merely as internet service providers and that they do not create content, and as such cannot be punished under the Communications Decency Act. Anti-trafficking advocates claim that Backpage.com has been functioning as more than a service provider and instead has created policies that assist would-be child traffickers to avoid detection by law enforcement.

The Washington state court case against Backpage.com comes after an eventful year of law and policy development by anti-trafficking activists with regard to the duties online advertising sites have to monitor and report content that supports child sex trafficking on their sites. In April, Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which contained legislation that aimed to criminalize offenders who knowingly advertise or profit from the commercial advertising of human trafficking on websites, such as Backpage.com. The language came from a stand-alone bill called the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act which was added as an amendment to the JVTA.

In addition to legislative efforts to combat Backpage.com, and other online advertisers, there have been private industry attacks by activists as well. In an announcement earlier this summer, major credit card companies, including American Express, Visa, and MasterCard, announced they will no longer let their cards be used to purchase adult ads on Backpage.com. The move was precipitated by Cook County, Illinois Sheriff, sending letters to Visa and MasterCard requesting the cut off relationships with Backpage.com.

The debate about Backpage.com and other online advertisers’ responsibility to protect children from sexual exploitation will undoubtedly continue with the progression of the court case in Washington State. Regardless of the outcome, one continued way to protect children from sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation is through education and awareness and honest dialogue with children about their social media usage.

Ashley Feasley is the Director of Advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC.

(Photo Credit: Melissa Gira Grant/Observer)