Backpage Reworded Ad and Not Protected by Section 230, Judge Rules

Backpage Reworded Ad and Not Protected by Section 230, Judge Rules

BOSTON — Backpage.com, which has faced a string of lawsuits alleging that it facilitated sex trafficking, was handed a partial defeat yesterday in a suit filed by three teens who filed suit against the classified ad site.

The teens alleged in their suit that Backpage "intentionally facilitated" sex trafficking by editing ads on the site to make it appear as if minors were actually adults.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Leo Sorokin found in the case that that there's enough evidence to reject Backpage’s motion to dismiss, and to allow one of the three teens’ cases to move forward.

While the ruling is a blow for Backpage, Sorokin's decision illustrates how current sex-trafficking laws can be effective and, perhaps why draconian legislation, such as SESTA, is unnecessary.

The teen whose case was allowed to go forward alleged that Backpage reworded an ad about her to suggest that she was an adult when she was actually only 15.

Backpage asked the court to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes Backpage from civil lawsuits based on material posted by users.

While noting that sites don't lose their immunity under the Section 230 merely by editing ads, Sorokin wrote the evidence showed that an ad for the third teen "was changed between submission and publication."

Sorkin ruled that the revisions were significant enough to warrant further proceedings against Backpage, which pared its adult ads section last year after congressional pressure.

Revision of Section 230 is the primary goal in the bills recently passed in the Senate and House of Representatives, SESTA and FOSTA, and were wrapped into one.

The legislation, which allows victims to sue sites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and allows state prosecutors to bring criminal charges against the operators of websites that facilitate prostitution, has not been signed into law by the president.

So far, the legislation's passage in the Senate has placed jitters in the industry, particularly after Craigslist and Reddit, which run personals listings and messaging boards, last week shuttered relevant sections of those sites.

In addition, escort sites CityVibe.com and Nightshift.co closed their respective sites after passage of the bill.  

There have been other reports of sites affected, including VerifyHim, which reportedly closed its discussion board and mailing list; HungAngels.com, which removed its forums; YourDominatrix.com, which shut down all U.S.-based ads; and Pounced.org, which closed citing Craigslist’s choice to shut down.

Other reports include YellowPages.com, which shut down its escort services and removed ads, along with MyScarletBook.com and ProvidingSupport.com, which both closed.

Google Drive deleted explicit content and locked out users, and Microsoft’s terms of service were updated, banning the use of “offensive language” and “inappropriate content,” such as nudity that may result in suspensions or bans for users of Skype, Xbox, Office and other services.

MyFreeCams also changed its TOS to explicitly ban any transaction that involves an offering to meet a site member for tokens.

Google Play also updated its policy to ban explicit content such as “promotional images of sex toys” and “apps that promote escort services.”

President Trump has until Saturday to sign it or veto the piece of legislation. If SESTA is allowed to expire without his signature or expressed veto then it becomes a “pocket veto.”

Industry attorney Michael Fattorosi on his AdultBizLaw.com website noted that if Trump pocket vetoes the legislation “there’s nothing the House or Senate could do immediately” because it is not in session.

“However, there is an argument that they are only in a mid-session break and not out of session,” Fattorosi wrote. “There is some debate constitutionally what constitutes a break and being out of session.

“[I]t is still possible that he will allow the bill to expire and use his ability to pocket veto it,” he said.

The bill could be reintroduced, voted on, passed and then once again presented to the president for signature or veto, he said.

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