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Backpage.com Lawsuit: Sex Trafficking Doesn't Trump Internet Freedom, Says Federal Judge

Plaintiffs coerced into prostitution as teens alleged that Backpage was complicit in their trafficking.

Marcie Casas/FlickrMarcie Casas/FlickrAs politicians in D.C. push to censor the web in the name of catching sex traffickers, civil-liberty lovers may find some solace in a recent federal court ruling. Maintaining a "free and open Internet" is more important than thwarting traffickers at all costs, ruled Judge Richard Sterns of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. 

The case involved classified advertising site Backpage.com, which—in addition to advertising things like apartment rentals and acting gigs—has become a hub for both prostitution ads and government anti-trafficking hysteria. Keep in mind that Backpage.com services more than 600 cities, runs hundreds of thousands of ads per day, and does not pre-screen user ads. Yet lawmakers at the municipal, state, and federal level argue that because some small percentage of ads may be posted by criminals, the whole site should be shut down, or, at the very least, held criminally responsible for any illegal transactions it unwittingly facilitates. 

In their lawsuit against Backpage.com, the plaintiffs—three women who were forced into selling sex as teenage runaways—argued similarly, saying that because their trafficker found clients on Backpage, the website was responsible for their exploitation. But by this logic, Facebook is guilty whenever anyone posts a threat there, Craigslist is culpable should a landlord want "females only," and Reason is guilty should any of you folks broker a drug deal in the comments. Thankfully, section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, established that the Internet doesn't work this way. 

"Let me make it clear that the court is not unsympathetic to the tragic plight described by [the defendants]," wrote Judge Sterns in his opinion. However, "singly or in the aggregate, the allegedly sordid practices of Backpage ... amount to neither affirmative participation in an illegal venture nor active web content creation," he continued. "Nothing in the escorts section of Backpage requires users to offer or search for commercial sex with children. The existence of an escorts section in a classified ad service, whatever its social merits, is not illegal." 

Ultimately, Sterns found that Backpage.com was not culpable for the trafficking of these women, per the parameters of Communications Decency Act, and granted a motion to dismiss the suit. "Congress has made the determination that the balance between suppression of trafficking and freedom of expression should be struck in favor of the latter in so far as the Internet is concerned," Judge Sterns concluded.

Well, Congress did make that determination. But things are about to change under the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which passed the U.S. House yesterday after clearing the Senate in April. The act, now headed Obama's way, included a provision—opposed by civil liberties groups, publishers, and victims' advocates—to hold website owners criminally responsible when trafficking victims are advertised there. 

Photo Credit: Marcie Casas/Flickr

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  • Curtisls87||

    A bill proffered in the house by Mike "political hack" Honda. Or do I repeat myself?

  • Quixote||

    And all the more glory to him. Let's work together to stop the "free Internet" nonsense that has caused so much pain and suffering in this country. It's surprising the judge even got into such baloney. In New York, they found a good way around the "free speech" claims, now's the time to do the same with the other excuses. See the documentation of America's leading criminal satire case at:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  • Carter Mitchell||

    I'm sure your mentor, Adolph Hitler, would be very proud of your antipathy to human liberty. Or are you simply demonstrating your ignorance of the subject?

  • Quixote||

    Are you trying to confuse readers with satirical barbs? Surely you are aware of the difference between liberty and licentiousness! Our great American nation is founded on an ordered liberty, with a carefully designed system that allows some of us a measure of freedom as long as we are careful to express ourselves in a polite, civil manner and stay within all the confines prescribed by all of our criminal statutes. And when there is speech that we really don't like, we will find a way of criminalizing it. That is the nature of a democracy. I understand that some of you are not happy with this situation, but you are always free to go and live in Russia or China if you don't like it.

  • Carter Mitchell||

    Yes, I am aware of the difference between liberty and licentiousness. Just as I am aware of the difference between a Ford Mustang and a Gala apple.

    And I am aware of the nature of democracy. Which is why, when asked what sort of government that the Constitutional Convention had given the people, Benjamin Franklin replied "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."

    As to the nature of democracy, this little anecdote sums it up perfectly: "Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on the lunch menu. Liberty is a well-armed sheep contesting the vote."

    Just because some busybodies get together to "criminalize" something they don't like doesn't mean that the "something" is inherently wrong, or that subsequent laws adhere to the principles of liberty.

    I suppose our founders were free to go elsewhere, also. Instead, they put their words into action: "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..." The Tories (your spiritual brethren) opposed the efforts of the rebels to overthrow the government of King George. The ones that lived through it were free to return to England and enslave themselves once again.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...and Reason is guilty should any of you folks broker a drug deal in the comments.

    AND YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

    Maybe Judge Sterns would like to rule on whether constitutional rights can be curbed in pursuit of drug trafficking.

  • kinnath||

    Hey buddy. Wanna buy some home-grown hops?

  • sarcasmic||

    I tried growing my own but I just don't get enough sun anywhere on my property. My wife is about to learn that this summer as she tries to grow some tomatoes and peppers.

  • LynchPin1477||

    There's your problem. Ever since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun.

  • Pathogen||

    Yes, I say.. end "the tyranny of the sun"...

  • Almanian!||

    Yeah, we had zero tomatoes last year when we moved the garden to the north side of the house. Everything else grew....

    Still haven't planted them yet this year, as Mrs. Almanian argues with herself where to put them*.

    * I, of course, already decided we'll plant them on the porch and deck again, in pots - cause they grow GREAT there. Worked before.,...just need to nudge her back there.

  • Zeb||

    You can't put a shovel in teh ground where I live without hitting a medium sized boulder, so we plant everything in pots or raised beds. Tomatoes do do quite well in pots. On a deck is good too because they like the reflected light.

  • LynchPin1477||

    The wife is using pots for the tomatoes at our new place. I'm not hopeful, it's a townhouse and we just don't get much sun. But I can't believe how big the recommended pot size is for tomato plants. Those are some greedy bastards!

  • Zeb||

    They are really hot climate plants, so they need all the help they can get. If you only have a few hours of direct light a day, you probably won't get much of anything.

  • Plàya Manhattan.||

    I built some raised planters with Rumblestone.

    It's awesome, like outdoor legos for adults. You can build fire pits too.

    http://www.pavestone.com/rumblestone/

  • Zeb||

    Those are cool. But I have a big pile of bricks and an abundance of stones, so I'm not about to buy any. I use the outside slabs of logs and replace them when they rot. Goes well with my rustic redneck aesthetic.

  • Almanian!||

    The cops are hopping mad at you now, Spencer!

  • perlhaqr||

    So... anybody got some weed?

  • Paul.||

    The act, now headed Obama's way, included a provision—opposed by civil liberties groups, publishers, and victims' advocates—to hold website owners criminally responsible when trafficking victims are advertised there.

    You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater, guys.

  • kinnath||

    Fuck. What number was that one?

  • Almanian!||

    You almost had it - just add "You, That's Why" and you're there. That's the one...

  • Xeones||

    If you WERE to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, though, obviously the theater owner would be responsible.

  • Almanian!||

    The new one? Cause I KNOW you're not dissing the original.

    /I AM THE NIGHTRIDER!!!!

  • Almanian!||

    That's not the Goose....

  • Almanian!||

    Oh boy. Was going to see it...now I'm conflicted.

    I LOVE the old ones. Road Warrior best, Mad Max #2, Thunderdome #3 - but they're ALL must watch. Over, and over, and over....

    The new one not so much, eh? I'll see it with my son, and block it out with drugs if it's bad....

    Anyone selling drugs on this site? Asking for...a friend. Just in case....

  • LynchPin1477||

    It still has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 92% user review.

    There's not accounting for taste, but they're making somebodies happy.

  • Almanian!||

    *whew*

    Thanks for that info :)

  • kinnath||

    I haven't been to a theater in years. But I almost decided to go to this one. I suppose I will wait for it to hit Dish now.

  • perlhaqr||

    Dude, the new movie was fucking awesome. Spencer was clearly on some of those Reason.com brokered drugs, and bad ones at that, if he felt otherwise. I feel that so much so that I'm paying more of my own dollars to go see it again. Possibly more than once again.

  • Zeb||

    There are drugs that can make a movie seem worse?

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Well, you could be watching Groundhogs Day while so high that funny things are happening with time.

  • Florida Man||

    Hundred percent agree spencer.

  • Mx. F. Stupidity, Jr.||

    Can I yell "Fire!" in a nearly-empty theater?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Is it on fire?

  • Mx. F. Stupidity, Jr.||

    Not necessarily, but the crowded theater has been the standard for a long time. I wondered if falsely yelling fire would be okay if there was only four other people in it.

  • Zeb||

    You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater, guys.

    Yes you can. I've done it. It wasn't interesting.

    People are pretty stupid, but not nearly as stupid as many people seem to imagine.

  • Pro Libertate||

    What, pray tell, are you supposed to yell when a theater is in the midst of a conflagration?

  • Swiss Servator, Quelle frisch||

    "Conflagration!"

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's a word I actually remember learning. Got it directly from Ray Bradbury.

  • ||

    You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater, guys.

    Someone said fire!

  • Carter Mitchell||

    That argument has nothing to do with free speech. The reason that you can't yell fire in a crowded (or empty) theater is simple: you are violating the implied contract with the proprietor which guarantees each customer the enjoyment of services provided. It's contract law, not basic principles of liberty.

    It's amazing how many people (Paul) on a site such as Reason are so ignorant of these basic principles. I would recommend a thorough reading of Murray Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty or For a New Liberty.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Don't be silly, I'm sure their wives pretend to love them for money.

  • Ivoted4KODOS||

  • LynchPin1477||

    Reason is guilty should any of you folks broker a drug deal in the comments

    Relax, the only thing being brokered here is a war on COZMOTARIANS!

  • Marshall Gill||

    Weigeltarians?

  • Hamster of Doom||

    We don't do drugs here, Brown. Drugs are bad.

  • Almanian!||

    JINX!!!

  • ||

    The squirrels declared you to be loser...

    Just deal with it.

  • Almanian!||

    Mmmkay.

  • Almanian!||

    "Backpage.com" - more like "backdoor.com", amirite?

  • Krieger's Waifu||

    *jazz hands*

  • Restoras, BHS||

    That usually costs extra.

  • LynchPin1477||

    /Ramsay Bolton nods and smiles

  • Almanian!||

    Also,

    THIS ^^^^^ is the commentariat I love. And Rico hates.

    Snarky, 90 different subjects, all over the map - perfect.

    Good job! Carry on, team.

  • Zeb||

    Well, Elizabeth loves us. And that's what's important.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Women are a precious resource around here, so they tend to be treated well.

  • Almanian!||

    Women? WHAT WOMEN??!!!

  • ||

    Like the sluts they are, amirite?

  • LynchPin1477||

    Slut praising!

  • waffles||

    I love sluts!

  • ||

    You're the worst*.

    *The colloquial praising/respectful definition of the worst. Not the literal definition of worst or any definition with any sort of moral, sex, or gender connotation associated with it. Unless that's insulting to presume that a woman couldn't be the worst. Whatever, just don't ask me to call you the worst and mean it because, like any good misogynist, I'll refuse.

  • Trevor St McGoodbody||

    They're as rare as unicorns and get spooked easily... like ordinary horses.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    When the conversation goes from women to horses, there's a Tijuana joke not far behind.

  • Pro Libertate||

    This is starting to sound like an America song.

  • ||

    "Summer Breeze?"

  • Pro Libertate||

    Not America. Have you been blowing too much jasmine directly into your mind?

  • ||

    "Baby I'm a Want You?"

  • Pro Libertate||

    No. No Bread. Really. Ugh.

  • ||

    Judge Stern? Really? Is he Judge Smails' cousin? Does he have the kind of hat you get a free bowl of soup with?

  • LynchPin1477||

    He'd make a good FCC commissioner. Or head of the FBI. You know, that FBI.

  • Ahem'||

    Food born illness?

  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||

    So has Reason reported on Robby Soave's interesting experience at University of Michigan yet?

    "Robby Soave @robbysoave
    So I went to UM to hear Coach Harbaugh's supposed apology to Muslim students. I was barred from entering the room."

    "I am being told the meeting between #JimHarbaugh and offended students is private and I can't even listen in. Also, that I am a threat"

    "Robby Soave @robbysoave
    I clarified repeatedly that my only interest was reporting the event. Activist told me I was making them feel unsafe. Not joking."

  • Hamster of Doom||

    I'm going to tell him he makes me feel unsafe.

  • Zeb||

    I would like to hear more about that.

  • mr lizard||

    And this is why Michigan will never have a good running offense ever again.

  • ||

    Running backs are muslim?

  • LynchPin1477||

    I didn't even hear about this.

    Harbaugh would do well to focus less on Muslim students and more on boosters. Rich Rod and Hoke didn't change zip codes because of Muslim activists.

    But I suspect Harbaugh will do well.

  • Viscount Irish, Slayer of Huns||

    Remember though: According to Tulpa it's wrong to criticize Islam because Muslims are a powerless minority - you know, the kind of powerless minority capable of forcing a school's football coach to engage in a private apology because they felt offended.

    I wish I could be that powerless.

  • Zeb||

    Well, there are lots of people with Arabic names. Does that count?

    Seems like there must be some Arab or Persian players.

  • Almanian!||

    + Ahmad Rashad

  • Mx. F. Stupidity, Jr.||

    Ahmad Rashad is never a plus.

  • ||

    Well, there are lots of people with Arabic names. Does that count?

    If so, can we count Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as 3?

  • LynchPin1477||

    America's rejection of soccer is just another sign of white privilege. We're so unenlightened. Why can't we be more like soccer fans?

  • Zeb||

    We just aren't drunk or violent enough to properly appreciate soccer.

  • Florida Man||

    Now that's saying something.

  • Trevor St McGoodbody||

    Watching people move a ball from one end of a large field to another for what feels like an eternity without much progress is definitely the greatest sport that was ever conceived!

  • Zeb||

    I'm not saying it is necessarily the best sport ever. But there must be some reason it's the most popular in the world.

  • ||

    Efforts like the anti-trafficking efforts discussed in the article and the protests at UM are specifically designed to destroy civil liberties. It isn't about sex trafficking or Muslim sensibilities.

    Foreseeable consequences are not unintended.

  • Trevor St McGoodbody||

    There are always people who will prey on fears about the unsavory aspects of society as a pretense to encroach on civil liberties. I think they're called politicians. Let me look that up.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    If Robby Soave offends these fucks then what the fuck version of the Qu'ran are these fucks reading? One of three New Age, watered-down, milquetoast, limited-edition prints hand-written by crystal-gazing hippies from Ojai?

  • tarran||

    Poor Robby! He should consider engaging in SJW friendly signaling to make them think he isn't out-group!

  • ||

    As I said on another thread, Harbaugh and the rest of the University loathe Cosmotarians.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Rico makes me feel uncomfortable... IN MY BREECHES.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    This is all well and OK but internet fucking freedom doesn't trump the very real streets the very real people walk, live, buy, eat, and fuck on either, Judge. Let's get some goddamn freedom up in the real streets while we're trying to get the goddamn freedom up in the digital replica of our realities.

    I'm just saying, freedom is an existential chain-breaker wherever sentience rolls its beady eyes and draws its silky breath.

  • Zeb||

    I'm just saying, freedom is an existential chain-breaker wherever sentience rolls its beady eyes and draws its silky breath.

    Good one.

  • Almanian!||

    AC - Poet. Fucking Laureate.

  • Xeones||

    Yeah, i want that tattooed across my shoulders.

  • Marshall Gill||

    There just isn't enough skin to properly tattoo The Agile One's quotes. Even in tiny, tiny print, I could only fit a couple of hundred of the very best ones.

    I had most of the other quotes (around 10GB) put on a chip and injected into my pancreas.

  • Xeones||

    Be careful doing that, man. That's how SugarFree got the diabeezy.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Has anyone checked the Plaintiffs? Because, based on the career of Somaly Mam and similar do-gooders I would not be astonished to discover that their stories of "being trafficked" are substantially bullshit.

    One thing about the Human Trafficking panic; like the White Slavery Panics of the 19th and early 20th centuries (which it strongly resembles) it provides all kinds of opportunities for clever young whores to get rich, if they are willing to tell the right sob-stories.

  • ||

    Somaly Mam and similar do-gooders

    Yeah, they do good for themselves.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I can tell that I'm getting old and unhinged. I still cling to that odd belief that the people who actually commit a crime are the ones responsible for it, not "society" or "the internet" or "the violence in Road Runner cartoons".

  • Pro Libertate||

    "That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me."

  • widget||

    My research of Backpage.com tells me that the women who post ads there are in their 20's and 30's mostly, a few in their in their early 40's.

    Sometimes there are ads the stipulate "No black guys" from black gals. Someone needs to call the Justice Department about that. It's social media so another curiosity is that providers often take photos of themselves in the motel mirror. This is an attempt at authentication. This keeps customers from getting a girthier provided than they had anticipated.

  • Zeb||

    That's some nice work there, widget.

  • ||

    This keeps customers from getting a girthier provided than they had anticipated.

    I'm confused. Are fat chicks or big dicks (or both) being discriminated against here?

  • Ahem'||

    Excellent ^^^^

  • retiredfire||

    By this kind of retarded thinking, the streets need to be shut down, since so much "sex trafficking" goes on there.

  • JoeyD333||

    It sucks for their women, but it's the people who post on backpage, not backpage itself. Always be safe and check Rub Maps for good things.

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