WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it won’t hear an appeal from three sex trafficking victims who accuse advertising website Backpage.com of helping to promote the exploitation of children.
The justices left in place a lower court ruling that said federal law shields Backpage from liability because the site is just hosting content created by people who use it.
The women say they were sold as prostitutes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island through advertisements for escort services on the site when they were as young as 15. They say Backpage is not protected by the Communications Decency Act because the company not only hosted the ads, but created a marketplace that makes child sex trafficking easier. Backpage has denied those allegations.
A federal judge threw out the lawsuit and the federal appeals court in Boston upheld that ruling.
In a related development, a Senate subcommittee released a report Monday that accused Backpage of concealing evidence of criminal activity by systematically editing its “adult” ads to remove words that indicate sex trafficking. The report cites internal documents showing that 70 to 80 percent of the ads are edited to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction.
The report also says that despite public claims to the contrary, the “true beneficial owners of the company” are CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey. The report says the men concealed their ownership interest through “a complex chain of domestic and international shell companies.”
Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which released the report on Backpage late Monday.
Critics say the website has become an increasingly popular vehicle for commercial sexual exploitation. Senate investigators have called Backpage a market leader in sex advertising and it has been linked to hundreds of reported cases of sex trafficking.
Lawyers for the website have said the company does more than any other online classified site to prevent the trafficking of minors. They argue that Congress wrote the law to preserve free speech on the Internet by giving immunity to websites for items posted by third-party users.
A spokesman for Backpage.com said the site shuttered the “adult” section of its website in the U.S. Monday night and a replaced it with a red “censored” sign that protests what it calls “unconstitutional government censorship.”
The page urges readers to “protect Internet free speech” and contact advocacy groups that support Internet privacy. It also asked readers to use social media to support #freespeech and donate to groups that rescue children from prostitution.
Twenty-one states had signed onto a brief urging the high court to take up the case, arguing that federal law does not protect websites that help create or develop third-party content.
In a separate case last month, a California judge rejected pimping charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, citing federal free speech laws. California officials have said they intend to pursue new charges against the company based on new evidence.
Prosecutors have alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage’s revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.
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