Backpage in court today, arguing on behalf of pimps
U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez is right. Village Voice Media's challenge to Washington's new state law tightening up on sex-ad websites makes for fascinating watching by legal geeks.
Village Voice owns Backpage.com, a website operating an adult-ads section. Many are escort ads and law enforcement and social welfare advocates argue pretty convincingly that escort ads do not sell dinner partners: they sell sex. Prostitution is illegal so these ads are already on the wrong side of the law. But state lawmakers, led by some of the best legislative footwork I've seen by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, opted to address the most scurrilous aspect of prostitution: pimping out minors for sex.
The state Legislature passed a law this year requiring Backpage.com verify that prostitutes featured in their ads are of age. Here's the text of the law. In this Time editorial, Village Voice was urged not to sue, but rather start taking steps to verify that the girls featured in the sex-ads on Backpage.com are adults.
Would that end prostitution? Of course not. Would some minors still be trafficked? Of course. Just as law enforcement's fine work ferreting out child pornographers hasn't eradicated the sordid world of child pornography and sex abuse. But the right thing to do is keep trying.
Lawmakers have to test the boundaries. There have been arrests involving more than 150 kids sold for sex on Backpage. Without the threat of a regulatory hammer, there is every incentive for Backpage to stay in the sex ad business. Critics estimate Village Voice makes $22 million annually from sex ads.
So back to Judge Martinez's courtroom:
Attorneys for Village Voice argued the state's new law is so overbearing and vague that every Internet site operator, including Facebook and Twitter, ought to be concerned. A lawyer for The Internet Archives, which archives materials from the Internet argued that the company could be held liable for accidentally archiving material deemed illegal.
I wasn't moved. Since the archiving is done on a mass scale by computer program, couldn't a program be created to toss material out of the cache, say a picture of a 13-year-old in a newspaper ad wearing nothing but a pair of heels?
Lawyers for the state argued that Facebook and Twitter have nothing to fear since they don't have designated sections for sex ads, oops I mean escort ads.
One point lawyers opposing the state law argued that I thought got to the heart of their concern came midway through the hour-long hearing. One of the lawyers told Judge Martinez that if Backpage got out of the adult-ads business, it might migrate overseas to companies that can operate outside Washington's legal confines. For a moment it felt like executives were almost visualizing their sex-ad revenue marching out of the country.
That could happen. And the sex trafficking of minors would remain a battle, but on a different front. But until then, lawmakers have a duty to take the battle to where the problem is. Right now that's Backpage.