For Immediate Release - February 20, 2015

AG Healey Files Brief Arguing That Backpage.com Can Be Held Liable for Facilitating Human Trafficking

Amicus Brief Urges Federal Court to Allow Lawsuit Brought by Sex Trafficking Victims to Proceed

BOSTON – Today Attorney General Maura Healey filed an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court in Boston urging a case against Backpage.com, filed by human trafficking victims in Massachusetts, to move forward.

“Websites that actively facilitate human trafficking should be held liable for this serious and widespread problem in the Commonwealth,” AG Healey said. “Backpage is known for advertising commercial sex, and its recent growth and dominant position in the market call into question its supposed efforts to curb prostitution and child exploitation.”

AG Healey’s brief argues that websites, like Backpage.com, that knowingly and actively support human trafficking, and that implement practices to deceive the public and undercut law enforcement’s efforts to protect victims, should not be immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The Massachusetts Anti-Trafficking Law and Chapter 93A, a state law prohibiting unfair or deceptive business practices, are applicable to Backpage’s conduct because, according to the plaintiffs’ complaint, Backpage does much more than simply allow users to post advertisements on its website. 

The case, Doe v. Backpage.com LLC, was filed by three women who were sold for sex on Backpage.com when they were as young as 15 years old. The plaintiffs allege that they were recruited by sex traffickers, advertised on the website, and then repeatedly sold for sex in various locations across Massachusetts. The plaintiffs further allege that Backpage has developed a business model predicated on facilitating pimps and traffickers in illegal sex trafficking, including by deceiving the public and law enforcement in order to protect its profits and prevent more intense scrutiny. 

According to the complaint, Backpage intentionally promotes sex trafficking by fostering the online market for illegal commercial sex and by helping traffickers both to develop effective advertisements and to evade detection and prosecution.  The complaint further alleges that Backpage knows that many of the trafficking victims advertised on its website are under-aged girls. 

“The plaintiffs’ experiences being trafficked for sex as minors in Massachusetts are both heartbreaking and much too familiar. A staggering number of minors are trafficked each year in the United States, often through the Internet,” AG Healey’s brief explains

Backpage has asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that it is immune from liability under the CDA for content posted by third parties. Around the country, Backpage has used the CDA to shield itself from suits brought by other victims of sex trafficking.

“To find that the CDA preempts state law and shields Backpage from liability would unreasonably and unnecessarily undermine state laws.… It would also allow Backpage and others like it to break the law with impunity, deprive victims of adequate remedies for the harms inflicted on them, and impede effective law enforcement. Certainly this is not the result Congress intended,” the brief concludes.

The Attorney General’s Office has been aggressive in its efforts to tackle the problem of human trafficking and led efforts to pass comprehensive human trafficking legislation in 2011. The law mandated an interagency task force made up of 19 organizations, including human trafficking survivors, law enforcement, victim services advocates, academia, and state agencies, which made recommendations to the Legislature in August 2013. To further the work of the task force, the AG’s Office has continued to work with specialized teams focused on implementation of the recommendations made in the report.

The AG’s Office has been actively involved in nationwide efforts by the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) to combat trafficking, including supporting a bill that would help prevent children from being sold for sex via the Internet by requiring websites that facilitate human trafficking to verify the identity of the individuals posting advertisements online and identify the age of those who appear in the advertisements. The AG’s Office also has a dedicated Human Trafficking Unit that handles criminal prosecutions and has charged 18 individuals in connection with human trafficking to date.  

AG Healey has vowed to make fighting human trafficking and providing victims with the services they need a priority of the office.

This matter was handled by Genevieve Nadeau, Assistant Attorney General in AG Healey’s Civil Rights Division, with assistance from Deborah Bercovitch, Chief of AG Healey’s Human Trafficking Division.

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