Online classified site Backpage.com was hit with child sex trafficking lawsuits in four states on Wednesday, expanding a high-stakes legal fight over a law that shields a wide range of online publishers from liability for content on their sites.
The lawsuits were filed in Texas, California, Alabama and Washington state, said Jason Amala, an attorney for the victims. The cases allege Backpage intentionally created an online marketplace for sex trafficking and knowingly profited from ads for illegal sex with women and children.
They follow other civil lawsuits with similar allegations, and draw on a U.S. Senate subcommittee report released this month that accused Backpage of actively editing posts to remove evidence of child sex trafficking.
Backpage, the second-largest U.S. online classified ad service after Craigslist, has argued it is merely hosting content, not creating it, and is thus protected from liability by the federal Communications Decency Act.
The CDA, enacted in 1996, helped pave the way for the explosion of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as online marketplaces, including Amazon and eBay. Some courts have begun to push back on broad interpretations of the CDA protections, and cases like those filed on Wednesday could test whether immunity from liability for virtually any type of content will remain in place.
The U.S. Supreme Court this month declined to set a national precedent by denying a request to review a federal appeals court ruling on the issue. The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the CDA shielded Backpage from liability for the content of the ads.
The Senate report found that Backpage.com manually and automatically removed words that indicated the person being advertised was a child, such as "little girl" and "amber alert." Backpage would then post the sanitized ad, the inquiry found.
Backpage could not immediately be reached for comment. The company said on Jan. 10 it was shutting its "adult" section, decrying what it called "government censorship."
However, the ads have since migrated to a different section of Backpage, according to Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, who heads the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University.
The five women who filed the suits said they were minors when they were advertised for sex on Backpage.com. They did not specify how much they were seeking in damages. The cases also name Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and the company's controlling shareholders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin as defendants.
Backpage is also the target of criminal action in California, where former Attorney General Kamala Harris filed charges of pimping and money-laundering against Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin.
(Reporting By Kristina Cooke and Dan Levine; Editing by Andrew Hay)