MISSOURI—U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas C. Mummert has dismissed a lawsuit brought against Village Voice Media in Sept. 2010 by an unnamed 15-year-old girl who was a victim of sex trafficking through the company's Backpage.com online classified website when she was 14 years old. The woman who pimped the minor out on the site, Latasha Jewell McFarland, pleaded guilty to prostitution charges in December and was sentenced to five years in prison.
The victim held Backpage.com responsible as well, alleging in a four-page complaint that it “had knowledge that: explicit sexual photographs were being posted on its website; that postings on their website were advertisements for prostitution services; that minors were included in these postings for prostitution on its website; that sex trafficking of minors was prolific in the United States of America; and that the internet including their service was being used to advertise illegal sexual services, including child exploitation.” The minor sought $150,000 per alleged violation.
In his dismissal, however, Mummert found that Backpage.com, as an “interactive computer service,” is immune under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for content posted to its site by third parties. The plaintiff made several arguments that attempted to override the immunity, but Mummert found none of them viable.
Indeed, in response to the claim that Backpage should not be immune under § 230 because it "is aware of prior cases of minors being sexually trafficked on its website and based upon the posted ads and photography, no reasonable person could review the postings in the adult categories and deny prostitution was the object of almost each and every ad,” the judge noted a 2007 First Circuit finding that it "is, by now, well established that notice of the unlawful nature of the information provided is not enough to make it the service provider's own speech."
In other words, even if a service provider knows that third parties are posting illegal content, under § 230, the service provider is under no obligation to intervene, and is in fact immunized from being held legally responsible. This immunization held in the earlier Craigslist case as well, in which a sheriff brought suit against the online classified giant for having “the single largest source for prostitution, including child exploitation, in the country.” Regardless of the allegations, § 230 immunized Craigslist, as it does Backpage.com, unless it had created the ads itself.
In conclusion, Judge Mummert wrote, “"Plaintiff artfully and eloquently attempts to phrase her allegations to avoid the reach of (the communications decency act). Those allegations, however, do not distinguish the complained-of actions of Backpage from any other website that posted content that led to an innocent person's injury. Congress has declared such websites to be immune from suits arising from such injuries. It is for Congress to change the policy that gave rise to such immunity."
The Order by Judge Mummert can be accessed here.