MISSOURI—The future of online sexual classified ads could be threatened with the filing of a lawsuit against Village Voice Media by M.A., an unnamed 15-year-old girl who was a victim of sex trafficking on Backpage.com. The girl says the website knowingly allowed ads to be posted to the service offering prostitution services involving minors, including her.
The lawsuit, which was filed yesterday in a Missouri federal court, seeks $150,000 in damages per alleged violation, plus attorneys’ fees. The four-page complaint alleges that Backpage.com “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.”
Specifically, the suit says that by allowing “explicit nude photographs” of M.A. in ads advertising her services as an escort to be posted to Backpage.com by her pimp, the site aided and abetted the crime of facilitating prostitution, the exploitation of children and child pornography.
According to Ars Technica, “The pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, has already pleaded guilty to prostitution charges, but the victim … says that Village Voice knew that the photos being posted of her were illegal but ‘failed to investigate for fear of what it would learn.’”
M.A. attorneys further argue that Village Voice should not be accorded the safe harbor protections of the Communication Decency Act (CDA), certain provisions of which protect websites that contain user-generated content.
"Defendant had a strong suspicion that the aforementioned crimes were being committed," reads the complaint. "Defendant had a desire that these posters accomplished their nefarious illegal prostitution activities so that the posters would return to the website and pay for more posting."
As serious as the charges are, the complaint does not clarify exactly how Backpage.com knew that criminal activity was being advertised or that images posted to the site were of minors. In order to deny Village Voice the protection of the CDA, the plaintiffs, which include M.A. as well as her unnamed mother and a friend identified only as P.K., will have to prove prior knowledge.
The filing of the lawsuit comes days after representatives of Craislist testified before a congressional hearing on the trafficking of minors. During that hearing, the reps said that Craigslist would not reopen its erotic services section, which had been voluntarily closed following intense pressure by 18 state attorneys general, but they nonetheless reasserted the right of Craigslist to advertise sexually oriented ads, and vociferously defended its commitment to working with law enforcement to fight prostitution and sex trafficking through its site.
William Powell, the company’s director of customer and law enforcement relations, also warned that the closure of the site would not deter those determined to break the law, or the majority of people he claimed used the section for legitimate and lawful purposes, who would seek alternative means and places to conduct similar activity.
“Those who formerly posted ads in the adult services category will now have to advertise elsewhere, and in fact there is evidence that this process began immediately,” Powell said.
The M.A. v Village Voice complaint can be read here.