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Justices deciding fate of Backpage.com lawsuit

OLYMPIA – A website sometimes used by pimps to advertise prostitutes shouldn’t be able to claim immunity from state sex-trafficking laws because it doesn’t write the ads, an attorney for three teenage victims of sex trafficking told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

But the website isn’t responsible for the content of ads, and even has rules that say it doesn’t accept those offering illegal services, an attorney for Backpage.com countered.

Justices seemed to struggle with both sides’ arguments, grilling both attorneys on different aspects of the federal law that gives broad, but not complete, immunity to website providers for content others post. The court has to decide whether a lawsuit the three victims filed against Backpage can continue to trial.

Erik Bauer, an attorney for three victims identified only by initials in court documents, said they were in seventh and ninth grade when they were controlled by pimps who advertised them on Backpage to customers who paid to have sex with them. There’s no doubt about that, but Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud asked why Backpage is liable if it didn’t create the ads.

The website has rules that essentially tell pimps how to write ads that work, Bauer said: “Pimps think ‘I’m going to go to Backpage because they make it easy.’ ” They create a marketplace, put their logo on the ads and screen ads from law enforcement seeking to catch pimps, prostitutes and their customers, he contended.

But James Grant, attorney for Backpage, argued repeatedly that because the website does not create the ads, it is immune from criminal or civil liability under the federal 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity for websites for things posted by outside parties. He likened Backpage to Craigslist and said it accepts ads for “escort services,” which are legal; it doesn’t have a category for prostitutes.

Backpage’s rules prohibit illegal conduct, so Bauer’s argument that the rules help pimps create ads is like arguing “black is white,” Grant said.

But justices wondered whether the broad immunity from one section of the 1996 law applied to the website, or a more narrow immunity in a different section applies. And there might be limits to a claim that Backpage has no connection to the services advertised on its website if it solicits ads, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said. What if, she asked, “you were making a living off of snuff films?”

The court will rule in the coming months whether the victims’ lawsuit against Backpage should continue to a trial in Pierce County Superior Court.

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