Backpage Wins TRO Over Wash. Age-Verification Law

Jun 7, 2012 1:45 PM PST

SEATTLE — A federal judge has sided with Backpage.com over a Washington state child sex-trafficking law that would require online publishers to verify the age of those shown in sex ads.

Backpage.com's parent company, Village Voice Media, had claimed the law, which was due to take effect today, "would bring the practice of hosting third-party content to a grinding halt."

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle this week granted a temporary restraining order to put a halt to the statute, ruling that he'd hear arguments over it at a preliminary injunction hearing June 15.

SB 6251 would force, by threat of five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine per violation, websites to become the government’s censors of user content, Backpage attorneys said in the suit filed Monday.

"The law expressly states that it is not a defense that the defendant did not  know that the image was of a minor," Backpage counsel said. "Instead, to avoid prosecution, the defendant must  obtain governmental or educational identification for the person depicted in the post.

"This means that every service provider — no matter where headquartered or operated — must review each and every piece of third-party content posted on or through its service to determine whether it is an 'implicit' ad for a commercial sex act in Washington, and whether it includes a depiction of a person, and, if so, must obtain and maintain a record of the person’s ID."

In the suit, Backpage said that SB 6251 contravenes Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prohibits Internet service providers from being treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by a third party.

Backpage also said that the state was trampling on the Constitutional rights because the statute imposes strict criminal liability on speech and that the Commerce Clause prohibits states from passing and enforcing legislation that regulate activity beyond the state’s borders.

Backpage, its counsel say, has resisted demands to eliminate its adult category, maintaining that selective online censorship is not a solution to trafficking and child exploitation and that technology and responsible leadership in businesses can help address these problems.

Backpage counsel noted that other states are poised to follow Washington’s lead. A similar law will soon take effect in Tennessee, and the legislatures in New York and New Jersey are considering analogous bills.

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