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Backpage.com: ad printer or pimp?

Oct 22, 2014

Police Conduct Major Prostitution Sting

A female police officer poses as a prostitute on Holt Boulevard in Pomona, CA.; Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

Open up an alt weekly, flip to the classifieds and you’ll likely find images of scantily clad women, mostly, advertising an array of adult activities. Online, there are similar services, like Backpage.com, second to Craigslist in popularity for posting ads. The Washington Supreme Court is hearing arguments today about whether the company is responsible for content posted there: including escort services and thinly-veiled prostitution. At issue, the site provides advice and some copy-editing, to ensure that advertisers get the most bang for their buck. Backpage insists it’s merely a platform. Not having written the ads, it should not be liable for their content. The plaintiffs are three women who say they were raped multiple times, and Backpage is partly to blame. Pimps forced the women, victims of human trafficking still in their teens, to post ads on the site. The plaintiffs argue that the site looked the other way: never verifying their ages and suggesting ways to craft the ads to avoid scrutiny.

Would a ruling against Backpage chill free speech online? Should the company be liable for the criminal behavior of its users? And how do we protect children who may fall victim to predators?

Jim Camden, the Legislative and state government reporter, political columnist for the Spokeman-Review, a newspaper covering Spokane and Northwest Washginton. He’s been covering the case for the paper.

Jeffrey D Neuburger, partner, at the law firm, Proskauer based in New York. He focuses on tech, media and communications laws.

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