'Hub' of underage sex ads targeted by Washington lawmakers
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state lawmakers introduced legislation Monday that would require classified-advertising companies to attempt to verify the age of escorts listed in sex-related postings.
The bill was one of a dozen introduced by a bipartisan group of senators seeking to curb sex trafficking.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said she hoped the measure would compel online clearinghouse Backpage.com to demand proof of age for those depicted in escort advertisements on its site.
"Letting minors be sold online is not right, and I don't think any reasonable person would tolerate that," said Kohl-Welles, who is sponsoring the underage sex ads bill.
Controversy heated up over summer
The battle over Backpage.com’s business model took off during the summer when Seattle Mayor Mike got in a battle with the owners of the Seattle Weekly over childhood prostitution and the risk of kids ending up for sale on those pages.
The Weekly attacked the mayor, saying his sudden focus on child prostitution was a political ploy, and the mayor ended up pulling city advertizing from The Weekly. The mayor also got a big boost from a Hollywood celebrity.
In July, King 5 reported,
“Ashton Kutcher is a big fan of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Around noon on Friday, Kutcher, an activist fighting to end human trafficking, tweeted: "I think every mayor should take human trafficking as serious as @mayormcginn in seattle http://t.co/BaxIDoz #dna"
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.
(Video of the Real Men Don't Buy Girls Campaign)
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.
Village Voice Media attorney Steve Suskin said Kohl-Welles' bill would violate the 1996 federal statute, adding that the company would fight it should it be passed into law.
"This is political pandering at its finest," Suskin said.
Bruce Johnson, an attorney who is a leading scholar on the First Amendment and advertising, said the bill appears to run afoul of federal law.
The Communications Decency Act "severely hamstrings state regulation in this area," Johnson said, adding that the bill may also be at odds with the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause and the First Amendment.
Frontal assault on prostitution
Backpage.com has been the nation's leading source of online sex escort ads since Craigslist.org shuttered its adult services section in September 2010.
Other sex-trafficking bills introduced Monday would strengthen rules against pimping out those with mental disabilities, permit the state to inspect foot massage parlors suspected as fronts for prostitution and make it easier to seize the assets of those with ties to sex trafficking in civil court.