The Washington Legislature must repeal a new state law requiring online classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements, under a settlement the state reached with Backpage.com.
The law was a targeted effort to fight the sex trafficking of minors on Backpage.com, the largest online purveyor of prostitution ads. But U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled the law violated the U.S. Constitution and section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which protects interactive online services from liability for material posted by other people.
Facing what would have likely been an expensive and protracted legal fight, Washington agreed to a settlement with Backpage on Dec. 6. The state will pay the online website $200,000 for attorneys fees.
Disappointing, to be sure. But keep one thing in mind. The problem of child sex trafficking did not go away with the settlement. Girls as young as 13 are still being sold for sex online. The obligation to vigorously fight child sex trafficking remains.
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Here’s the message for state lawmakers: Stay focused on the larger mission. Try again. This time get the legal wording right so the law passes judicial scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Congress should revise the 1996 communications law to distinguish between its appropriate role protecting Internet service providers from blame for materials posted by third parties, and the use of the law to shield moneymaking from prostitution ads.
About 100,000 U.S. juveniles are sold online for sex every year. Backpage argues it polices the site by requiring people buying adult ads to click an on-screen button verifying anyone depicted in the ad is 18 or older. Relying on pimps to tell the truth does not offer much of a deterrent.
Backpage’s parent company, Village Voice Media, ultimately cut ties with the website. But Backpage continues to operate and kids continue to show up in prostitution ads. Pressure should continue on the website to shut down its adult entertainment section.
Credit goes to outgoing state Attorney General Rob McKenna for leading the National Association of Attorneys General to the forefront of the battle against child sex trafficking. McKenna leaves a strong example of fighting sex-trafficking for incoming Attorney General Bob Ferguson.