The City and County of San Francisco, together with the cities of Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore., has filed a friend of the court brief in support of a federal lawsuit against Backpage.com, a prominent national website known for posting “escort” advertisements, for allegedly promoting sex trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The underlying case currently pending in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts was brought by three teenagers who, according to a complaint filed by the law firm of Ropes & Gray, were victimized by sex trafficking schemes that Backpage.com enabled. Together with their parents, they seek damages against Backpage’s owners and operators, arguing that the content service knowingly facilitated commercial sex transactions in violation of state and federal law. Backpage has moved to dismiss of the civil suit, contending that it is immune from liability under a federal law intended to protect neutral internet service providers and those that act as good Samaritans by filtering objectionable content.
“I’m proud to join with other major cities that share San Francisco’s strong interest in protecting children from sex trafficking,” said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “Human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing organized crime activity, and studies have shown that 63 percent of the estimated 300,000 children sold for sex in the United States are trafficked online. Evidence suggests that Backpage materially contributes to this shocking trend in human trafficking. Yet now, Backpage is trying to shield its reprehensible content practices behind a federal law meant to protect neutral internet service providers—not content providers. Should Backpage succeed with its motion, the ruling could eviscerate local law enforcement’s ability to protect children from sex trafficking, and risk creating what one court called ‘a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet.’ I’m very grateful to my counterparts inAtlanta, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, and Portland for joining San Francisco to support the plaintiffs in this vitally important federal litigation.”
Backpage has based its motion on a provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which was intended to protect passive domain hosts and neutral internet service providers from liability for the actions of third-party content providers. But the relevant provision, Section 230, provides no immunity to Backpage, the cities argue in their amicus brief, because the defendant company “allegedly does far more than simply display ads submitted by third parties. Instead, it actively facilitates sex trafficking by 1) materially contributing to the development and promotion of advertisements to sell children for sex on its website, and 2) engaging in business practices that communicate to posters and users the information that the ‘Escorts’ section of the website is a marketplace for the illegal sale of sex.”
The six cities seeking to file as friends of the court, or amici, in the Massachusetts case are among the country’s top markets for the sex trafficking of minors, according to the motion filed on Feb. 19, 2015. FBI statistics found San Francisco to be among thirteen “High Intensity Child Prostitution Areas” nationwide, and all six cities joining in the petition are among the nation’s top 25 cities in the number of children rescued from underage prostitution in a nationwide FBI raid.
The case is: Jane Doe No. 1 et al. v. Backpage.com, et al., U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Civil Action No. 14-13870-RGS. A filed copy of the cities’ amicus brief and related motion is available on the S.F. City Attorney’s Office’s website at :http://www.sfcityattorney.org/.