Age verification for 'sex-ads' now the law in Washington; first in nation

Mar 29, 2012

Washington state has become the first in the nation to require verification of age for online ads that promote sex-related services, such as the escort ads that appear in backpage.com.

The bill, Senate Bill 6251, was among a dozen anti-trafficking bills signed into law by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire today.

“Some of them are leading edge legislation, including the first time in the nation criminalizing those who advertize minors online if they have not done the verification of age,” said Rose Gundersen is co-founder and Executive Director at Washington Engage, a non-profit. 

Gundersen was in Seattle attending an anti-trafficking summit put on by the National Association of Attorneys General. Gundersen said under the new law, classified ad companies will be motivated to check the ages of escorts in their ads.

“This groundbreaking, bipartisan bill responds to the public's outrage over the exploitation of vulnerable kids - including runaways and addicts - by certain businesses,” said Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna in the press release. “Just weeks after Sen. Kohl-Welles' legislation received national attention, legislators in Connecticut introduced a similar proposal. We expect that other states will soon follow Washington's lead.”

Published by Villlage Voice

Locally, backpage.com publishes in the Seattle Weekly. Another bill signed increases the minimum fine for convicted Johns. Some of the money collected will be used to help victims. Washington was the first state in the nation to criminalize human trafficking.

Backpage.com operates a robust online clearinghouse for sex escorts. Critics estimate parent company Village Voice Media makes more than $22 million per year from sex-related ads, a figure the Phoenix-based company has not disputed. It owns 13 weekly newspapers, including Seattle Weekly.

The Seattle Police Department says it has linked 22 cases of child prostitution since 2010 to girls who were advertised as escorts on the website.

‘National leader’

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D—Seattle, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6251, said in a press release, “I am ecstatic this anti-trafficking legislation is now law, the first of its kind in the country. This makes the strongest possible statement that there should be no selling of minors online – or anywhere!”

“This bill makes our state a national leader in protecting children from sexual exploitation. From Senator Kohl-Welles’ tireless work on this issue to Governor Gregoire’s signature today, our state elected leaders have come together to lead the nation in the prevention of underage sex trafficking” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “This innovative legislation provides a national model for other states to follow, and I hope to see this approach adopted across the country.”

For its part, The Weekly shot back in August:

“For the past six weeks, representatives from Backpage.com – the classified-ad site owned by Village Voice Media, which also owns Seattle Weekly – have met in good faith with the Mayor. In each and every instance, Mayor McGinn convened a press conference, issued a press release, or leaked data--prior to contacting us, prior to canceling the city's advertising, and prior to sitting down with us.

“Voters must wait for the next election to deal with the mayor. As for Backpage.com, there will be no more meetings with McGinn. Instead, Backpage will continue to cooperate with the Seattle Police Department and to seek the highest level of online security to screen against underage exploitation in adult classifieds.”

Convictions

The Seattle Police Department, meanwhile, says it has linked 22 cases of child prostitution to girls who were advertised as escorts on Backpage.com, a subsidiary of Village Voice Media, which also owns Seattle Weekly.

In October, Damenique Lajuan Beasley pleaded guilty to one count of promoting prostitution and one count of attempted promoting prostitution after prosecutors charged he advertised a 17-year-old girl as a sex escort on Backpage.com. He was sentenced to three and half years in prison.

Hub for human trafficking

In a letter signed by more than 40 state attorneys general and sent to Backpage.com in August, the law enforcers called the site a "hub" for human trafficking and implored it to shut down its escorts section.

Backpage.com rebuffed the request, citing the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which ensures website operators aren't liable for the speech of unaffiliated parties.

Currently, Backpage.com asks those posting escort service ads on its website to vouch for the age of those whose services are offered. The company also works with various law enforcement agencies in weeding out suspected cases of child sex trafficking.