Sex Trafficking Case May Sway Bid to Change Website Liability Law

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

By Alexis Kramer

An upcoming ruling in a criminal case against the CEO of Backpage.com LLC could lend momentum to federal legislation opposed by tech companies that would amend an online publisher immunity law ( People v. Ferrer, Cal. Super. Ct., No. 16FE024013, hearing 8/23/17 ).

A California state judge will decide Aug. 23 whether CEO Carl Ferrer and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin can be held liable for criminal pimping and money laundering, California Department of Justice spokeswoman Tania Mercado told Bloomberg BNA.

Backpage has been repeatedly protected under the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, from lawsuits claiming it facilitates sex trafficking on its classified ad site. The California Superior Court previously dismissed criminal pimping charges against the three executives pursuant to the statute, which shields online publishers from liability for the content of others.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) are pushing bills that would hold websites liable for knowingly publishing third-party content designed to facilitate sex trafficking. Tech trade groups representing Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Facebook Inc., and other companies oppose the bills. The groups argue that the bills would force websites to remove large amounts of legitimate content out of fear of liability.

The California Superior Court dismissed the first set of criminal charges—pimping and conspiracy to pimp—in December 2016. A Senate subcommittee led by Portman released a report in January finding that Backpage knowingly concealed sex trafficking ads by deleting incriminating terms.

Another court ruling in Ferrer’s favor could spur lawmakers to move on the bills despite tech company opposition.

An attorney for Backpage declined to comment.

State Law Exemption

Both bills would amend Section 230 to exempt state sex trafficking laws from the statute’s broad immunity provisions. The law currently provides an exemption for federal criminal laws but not state criminal laws. It’s unclear whether state laws on criminal pimping—receiving earnings from another person’s prostitution—would fall under the proposed exemption.

Wagner’s bill “empowers law enforcement and prosecutors by providing them the tools necessary, from the state and federal level, to go after these online sex slave traders and hold them accountable once and for all,” Wagner spokeswoman Ali Pardo told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 21.

Portman spokesman Kevin Smith told Bloomberg BNA that regardless of the court outcome, “we strongly believe victims should be able to hold companies like Backpage accountable, and that state law enforcement should be able to prosecute.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexis Kramer in Washington at aKramer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law