Girls Sold for Sex Online, Backpage Defends Decision to Keep Ads Up

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Jessica lives with the scar on her face, but has turned her experience into action, working with FAIR Girls, an advocacy group for victims of sex trafficking.

"If we could save one child, that one child could have been me," she said.

Her pimp is now behind bars, due in part to her testimony against him. Jessica now has her sights set on becoming a lawyer, and is working to shut down online marketplaces that allow for adult advertisements.

"If I could at least do that when I get out of law school, work and be an advocate for victims, I could make sure that I could get rid of places like Backpage's adult section so that children are not forcibly sold every day," she said.

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage and dozens of alternative newspapers around the country, including the venerable New York City publication, The Village Voice, has a moral obligation to shut down the ads.

"With Backpage being such a high profile company, they're normalizing this practice of advertising prostitution online," McKenna said. "They're essentially sending a signal 'hey this is OK, there's nothing really wrong with this,' when in fact it's resulting in the massive victimization of women and girls across our country. Will it move? It might well. But we can't allow this open casbah -- this market place to exist in such a high profile fashion because it encourages others to do even more of it."

McKenna and other attorneys general are somewhat bound by a law Congress passed in 1996 called the Communications Decency Act. The Act says that Internet service providers or "interactive computer services" like Backpage are merely hosts and not publishers in the traditional sense.

That means that the websites cannot be held liable for material posted on them by a third party, which is why, while the act of prostitution may be illegal, Backpage is not responsible for someone posting an ad for it on their site.

"I've thought about whether there's a federal fix," said Backpage's lawyer Liz McDougall. "I have yet to be able to think of what would be a constitutionally sustainable amendment to that law that wouldn't, at the same time, devastate the Internet."

McKenna said some in Congress are exploring how the law might be changed. In the meantime, he pointed to a recently passed law in his home state of Washington that would require sites like Backpage to obtain documentation that the escorts in posted ads are over 18. McDougall said she expects that law to be challenged in court.

If you are a victim of human trafficking and need immediate help or if you suspect a trafficking situation, call the The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or you can report a tip online HERE.

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