Backpage.com Settles Sex Trafficking Lawsuit
October 3, 2017
(Seattle, WA) – The website Backpage.com has settled a sex trafficking lawsuit brought by three girls who alleged they were sold for sex in the “escort” section of the website. Trial in the case was scheduled to begin next week in Pierce County, Washington.
Filed in 2012, the plaintiffs alleged they were between 13 and 15 years old when they were advertised for sex on Backpage.com. Each of the plaintiffs claimed a sex trafficker paid Backpage.com a small fee to post their sex ads in the “escort” section of the website.
In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged the website should be held liable because it “knowingly developed a nationwide online marketplace for illicit commercial sex” and did so “because of the millions of dollars that they generated from the website every month.” The plaintiffs claimed the website had a practice of “altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality” and then “publishing the ‘sanitized ads’ for a fee.”
The lawsuit was the first in the country to defeat the website’s argument that it is immune from sex trafficking lawsuits under the Communications Decency Act. Passed in the mid-1990s to promote the growth of the internet, the CDA gives websites immunity from lawsuits for content posted by third parties. Both the trial court and the Washington Supreme Court rejected the website’s argument that the CDA protected it from the plaintiffs’ allegations.
Erik Bauer, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said he could not discuss the settlement because it is confidential: “I cannot discuss the terms of the settlement because it is confidential. We settled on mutually agreeable terms and our clients are pleased with the result.”
The lawsuit featured prominently in a recent documentary about online sex trafficking. Titled “I Am Jane Doe,” the documentary premiered earlier this year and chronicles lawsuits by multiple families to hold Backpage.com liable for alleged sex trafficking of minors. All but the Washington case were dismissed because of the CDA.
Bauer’s co-counsel, Seattle attorney Michael Pfau, says the plaintiffs uncovered evidence that the website intended to promote sex trafficking, not prevent it: “Backpage tried to have our case thrown out by claiming it was immune under the CDA. They went so far as to claim they had a system for preventing sex trafficking of minors. The Washington courts were the first in the country to rule that we should have a chance to test what the website was claiming. In the end, we believe we showed their system was designed to promote sex trafficking, not prevent it.”
Jason Amala, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said the company could not explain how their system helped to protect children: “A number of their top executives refused to answer nearly all of our questions and invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Even their in-house lawyer could not explain how removing terms like ‘amber alert’ or ‘lolita’ helps to fight child sex trafficking. In our view, they were just sanitizing sex ads to reduce the chances that they would have to remove the ads and make less money.”
On January 9, 2017, Backpage.com shut down the “escort” section hours after the United States Senate issued a scathing report about the company’s alleged role in online sex trafficking. According to the Senate report, the website generated $135 million in revenue in 2014, and the vast majority of that revenue was from sex ads. The website claimed the “escort” section was shut down due to allegations of “censorship” by the United States government.
The attorneys are shifting their focus to other lawsuits they have helped file against the website, including two more cases in Washington, one in California, and one in Texas. The lawsuits include allegations based on evidence obtained in the Washington case that settled.
For example, one of the complaints alleges that Backpage.com’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, sent an email where he said it would be “too harsh” to ban advertisements that contained words or images that indicated the ad was for sex. Instead, Ferrer allegedly said it was “[b]etter to edit by removing bad text or removing bad language” so that users could “adjust.” The complaint cites the email as evidence that the website intentionally sanitized sex ads so that it could profit from the ads.
Bauer believes many more sex trafficking victims are likely to come forward: “Thousands of children have been sold for sex on that website. They are starting to come forward as they realize people support them, not those who profit from sex trafficking.”
Two bills have been proposed in Congress in response to the attention generated by the Washington case, the Senate report, and “I Am Jane Doe.” Both bills state that the CDA does not provide immunity to entities that knowingly promote sex trafficking.
Amala welcomes the clarity and hopes tech companies will join the current dialogue: “This law is more than 20 years old and was passed when people were still using AOL to access the internet. We need the tech companies to tell Congress they will continue to prosper even if steps are taken to hold sex traffickers accountable. They’ve been virtually silent, or worse, the advocacy groups they fund have sided with Backpage.com and sex traffickers.”
To date, Oracle, 21st Century Fox, and Hewlett Packard are the only major tech companies to support the pending legislation. Other companies, like Google, have criticized the bill. Google’s vice president of public policy, Susan Molinari, called the proposed legislation a “disaster” while at the same time saying “Backpage.com can and should be held accountable for its crimes.”
Amala says Google and others can’t have it both ways: “Google is speaking out both sides of its mouth. You can’t say you are against child sex trafficking at the same time you are lobbying against a law to prevent it. If Google wants to help stop sex trafficking then Ms. Molinari should spend her ‘20% time’ on helping us figure out a solution. Just saying ‘no’ doesn’t do anything to help the thousands of women and children being trafficked every day.”
The following cases remain pending against Backpage.com:
Washington: The Washington lawsuit was filed on behalf of two teenage girls who are identified as R.O. and K.M. R.O. alleges she was 14 to 15 years old, and K.M. alleges she was 16 years old, when they were sold for sex on the website. Each girls alleges she was sold for sex in the greater Seattle area. R.O. alleges her ads appeared on the website from October 2014 until December 2015. K.M. alleges her ads appeared in early 2015. Both girls allege they were repeatedly sexually abused as a result of being advertised for sex on the website.
California: The California lawsuit was filed on behalf of a teenage girl who the complaint identifies as “Jane Doe.” Jane Doe alleges she was 15 years old when she was sold for sex on the website. Jane Doe alleges she was sold for sex in Riverside County, California. Jane Doe alleges her ads appeared on the website for weeks in August 2015. Jane Doe alleges she was repeatedly sexually abused as a result of being advertised for sex on the website.
Texas: The Texas lawsuit was filed on behalf of a teenage girl who identified as “J.M.” In her complaint, J.M. alleges she was 15 to 16 years old when she was sold for sex on the website. J.M. alleges she was sold for sex in Hawaii, but filed suit in Texas because Dallas, Texas, was the principal place of business for the website during the time she was abused. In October 2016, authorities raided the Dallas offices of the website after its CEO, Carl Ferrer, was arrested. J.M. alleges her ads appeared on the website from March 2015 through September 2015. J.M. alleges she was repeatedly sexually abused as a result of being advertised for sex on the website.
- Second amended complaint, filed January 19, 2017
- Original Washington Complaint filed in Pierce County, WA on 2012-07-27 (warning: NSFW content containing ads for escort services)
- Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, June 15, 2017
- Declaration of Michael Pfau in Support of Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, June 15, 2017
Other documents related to cases against Backpage
- Washington complaint: R.O. v. Medalist Holdings, L.L.C., et. al, filed on January 25, 2017
- California complaint: Jane Doe v. Medalist Holdings, L.L.C., et. al, filed on January 25, 2017
- Texas complaint: Jane Doe v. Medalist Holdings, L.L.C., et. al, filed on January 25, 2017
- Alabama Complaint: K.R. v. Medalist Holdings, L.L.C., et. al, filed on January 25, 2017
- Watch: Backpage.com Executives Plead Fifth Amendment in Response to Senate Questions (January 10, 2017)
- United State Senate Report, “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking,” published January 9, 2017
- Appendix to U.S. Senate Report (contains evidence cited by the Report), published on January 9, 2017
- Testimony from Former Backpage.com Employee Saying His Job Was to Sanitize Sex Ads, taken on August 2, 2016
- October 2010 Email from Carl Ferrer Stating Removing Sex Ads ‘Too Harsh’
- Order Granting Plaintiffs’ Motion to Compel Full & Complete Responses from Backpage Def With Re to Discovery Requests