Backpage.com led to exploitation, says suit involving 2 Pierce girls
They were underage girls. Two were 13, from Pierce County. One was 15, from King County.
They ran away from home, into the arms of the wrong men: pimps who sold them online for sex. Scores of strangers paid by the hour.
Friday, the three young women sued the website Backpage.com, accusing the owners of profiting from misery.
The young women allege ads on Backpage enabled their exploitation, and the site’s owners did nothing to prevent it.
Photos of the girls appeared in numerous ads on the site, paid for by the pimps, according to the lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court. One ad promoted the youngest girl as the “80 DOLLAR DAY SPECIAL,” court records state.
Seattle attorney Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage’s corporate owners, said the lawsuit will not pass legal muster and is barred by federal law.
The lawsuit opens a new front in the legal war against Backpage, owned by Village Voice Media in New York.
The site is a popular online destination for escort services. It’s taking a pounding in courts and statehouses across the country. Attorneys general, including Washington’s Rob McKenna, call Backpage a front for prostitution and human trafficking of minor children.
Erik Bauer, one of the attorneys representing the young women, uses simpler terms.
“Backpage is Highway 99,” he said Friday, referring to a stretch of Puget Sound roadway known for prostitution.
“I don’t think we can stop prostitution,” he added. “But you don’t sell kids. It’s not OK to advertise and sell kids anywhere, ever. You don’t do that.”
McDougall offered sympathy for the young women.
“The commercial sexual exploitation of children is an abhorrence in our society,” she said. “It is appalling as a street crime and it is appalling as an Internet crime,” McDougall wrote in an e-mailed note.
“The stories of the girls identified in the complaint are tragedies. However, the commercial sex exploitation of children is an extremely complex problem on the streets and online, and it must be fought intelligently.
“Backpage.com is at the forefront of fighting it intelligently online with a triple-tier prevention system and an unparalleled law enforcement support system.”
One girl named in the suit was 13 when she ran away from home and met a pair of pimps in September 2010, the complaint states. They dressed her in lingerie and took photos, posted on Backpage. Customers clicked, called and connected.
“Many, many adult men,” the complaint states.
The suit throws fresh kindling on a smoldering legal fire.
Friday, Backpage attorneys won a procedural victory in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez granted an injunction that halts a new state law aimed at the website.
The law would require classified advertising companies such as Backpage to verify the ages of people depicted in sex ads. Failure to do so could allow criminal prosecution of those who publish such ads.
Backpage sued last month to halt the law’s implementation, joined by the Internet Archive (known as the Wayback Machine), a nonprofit company that preserves records of Internet sites.
The plaintiffs argued that the state law infringed on free speech and violated the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996.
The federal law is the core of Backpage’s defense. It leans on a single sentence that says Internet service providers cannot be held legally responsible for content posted by others.
The law states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In Friday’s ruling, the judge agreed that the state and federal laws appeared to conflict, and noted that enforcement of the state law could trigger free-speech questions.
The Pierce County lawsuit stands on different ground.
“Is it proper for some outfit, for some entity, to make millions of dollars not only in trafficking women, but even more importantly trafficking children?” asked Seattle attorney Mike Pfau, who with Bauer represents the young women. “No. It is absolutely unacceptable.”
The actions described in the complaint date to 2010. The pimps paid Backpage with credit cards, records state. They dressed the young women in skimpy garb, photographed them and posted numerous ads on the website.
The Backpage site includes “posting rules” which require ad buyers to click an on-screen button to verify that the users are 18 or older.
The lawsuit argues it’s not much of a deterrent.
“Other than requiring the poster of the ad to agree to this term by ‘clicking’ on the posting rules page, Backpage.com does nothing to verify the age of the escorts who appear in its prostitution ads, even though it knows that pimps are usually the ones who create the ads, or force their minor sex slaves to do so,” the complaint states.
The suit contends Backpage’s rules are a fraud: a guidebook that tells pimps precisely how to stay barely legal and evade law-enforcement scrutiny.
“Backpage is not some innocent little blank slate,” Bauer said. “It’s not some little corner store. Backpage knows full well what they’re doing. They understand what they’re doing in depth. It’s commercial sex advertising. That’s what they do.”
The suit names a pimp, Baruti Hopson, who was convicted last year in King County on multiple counts of child rape, assault and promoting the sexual abuse of a minor.
Hopson, 33, was sentenced to 26 years in prison. He is linked to the oldest of the three girls who filed suit in Pierce County.
According to court records in Hopson’s case, he raped the girl and sold her for sex throughout summer and fall of 2010. He used the Backpage site, paid for the ads and clicked the age-verification button. He kept the money from customers for himself.
The girl, identified only by initials in the lawsuit, lied about her age to Hopson at first, the court records state. She thought she was in love with him. Eventually, she told him she was 16, which was still a lie – she was 15. Hopson continued to advertise her services on Backpage.
The girls’ lawsuit alleges that, “At no time did Backpage.com attempt to verify (her) age or to otherwise protect her from being advertised for sex on Backpage.com.”
McDougall, attorney for Backpage, said shutting down the website won’t fix the problem.
“Unless the Internet is wholly shut down, the end result of the current strategy will be that our children are advertised through offshore websites who do not endeavor to prevent such activity,” she wrote.