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Backpage Shuts Down Adult Ads After Removing Evidence of Child Sex Trafficking

Published: Feb 17, 2017 in Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes, a website that hosts classified ads, which has been the center of controversy for some time, announced in January it would remove its “adult” section of its American website. The decision came after months of scrutiny and a negative report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which found the website knowingly facilitated sex trafficking of minors through ads in the section in question. Backpage’s legal problems stem from a lawsuit by a group of underage victims of sex trafficking, collectively known as Jane Doe, in addition to the CEO and two controlling shareholders being criminally charged in California for pimping and money-laundering. While law enforcement and the federal government are likely pleased with Backpage’s recent decision, the website is claiming government pressure led to censorship.

What is the major question?

The big issue behind the Backpage controversy is whether an online website or platform can be held responsible for content posted on its site, even if that content is written and posted by third parties. Under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), businesses are currently protected when hosting third-party content. That is why the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Backpage during the case of Jane Doe v. The decision itself was a victory for Backpage, but the following government investigation and findings call into question whether Backpage, its executives, and its owners should really be protected.

The Senate Subcommittee’s Findings

While Backpage successfully got through the civil lawsuit regarding its participation in sex trafficking of minors, it did not escape blame from the Senate. The Senate subcommittee investigated Backpage and its alleged involvement in sex trafficking through ads on the adult section. Ultimately, the committee found there was evidence that Backpage actively edited third-party content before posting it, removing words like “rape,” “little girl,” “teenage”, “young,” “Lolita,” and “Amber Alert.” A number of senators found that this process did not change what was happening through the advertisement, it only served to cover up that the girls were underage and make it harder for law enforcement to catch sex traffickers. In addition to determining that Backpage intentionally removed evidence of child sex trafficking from its site, the subcommittee also found Backpage avoided revealing this information. It took a civil contempt action against the business and then a federal court order compelling documents from Backpage to finally provide information to the Senate about their content screening measures.

The subcommittee’s findings question whether Backpage is truly protected by the CDA. When a company intentionally edits and participates in the content that is hosted on its site, it loses protection under the CDA. While previous civil lawsuits have not succeeded in holding Backpage responsible for sex trafficking due to the CDA, the subcommittee’s findings mean the company could be held liable in the future.

What Does This Mean Moving Forward?

The Senate’s findings are important for individuals charged with child sex crimes. Many business executives and owners, not just those at Backpage, have previously hidden behind the CDA and other laws when it comes to responsibility for the content, communications, and actions taken through their websites. The Senate’s investigation and report reveal there may be ways for businesses, its employees, and owners to be held responsible for crimes such as child sex trafficking that is facilitated through their websites. Essentially, it hinges on whether anyone knowingly participated in writing or editing the content.

Contact an Experienced Houston Sex Crimes Lawyer

Regardless of the effect on Backpage, the CDA still protects many individuals and businesses that are truly separate from the content posted on their websites. It remains a valid defense.

If you are being investigated or accused of a sex crime in Texas, you need to know what you are up against and how to protect your rights. For information on defending against sex crimes, such as child sex trafficking, contact an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney at the Law Offices of Ned Barnett.

Call (713) 222-6767 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.