NEW YORK, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Mary
Mazzio first heard about middle-school girls from her hometown
of Boston suing a website on which they had been sold for sex,
the self-described "recovering lawyer" was blown away.
"What? Fifteen minutes from where I live?" the film director
"How, in the U.S., is it legal to sell children?"
Soon enough, pouring over a copy of the court case, Mazzio
was plunged into a corner of the internet she had not suspected
even existed: the world of classified ads website, Backpage.com.
Until last month, when Backpage abruptly shut its "adult"
section, abused minors were being sold on Backpage as "escorts",
alongside second-hand laptops and kitchen appliances.
On Tuesday, Backpage was hit with lawsuits saying it
promotes the crime by rewriting ads offering children for
Each year, some 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk of
being trafficked for commercial sex in the United States,
according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2013, Backpage made more than 80 percent of its revenue
from commercial sex advertising in the United States, according
to a U.S. Senate report released last month.
Though Backpage may have yielded to the pressures of
government officials and campaigners, the sex trafficking
victims and their mothers haven't forgotten how it turned a
profit by running ads from their pimps offering the girls for
money, Mazzio said.
In her documentary film, "I Am Jane Doe", Mazzio chronicles
the stories of sex-trafficked teens who have embarked on
quixotic legal battles against the online classified advertising
website, among the world's largest.
Backpage could not immediately be reached for comment.
NEVER GIVE UP
Jane Doe is the name given to anonymous legal parties in
U.S. courts, such as the five sex-trafficked victims that are
suing Backpage and whose stories form the film's narrative.
The characters wage uphill battles, with Backpage repeatedly
triumphing in court by arguing it is hosting content, not
creating it, and is thus protected from liability by the federal
Communications Decency Act (CDA).
The CDA, passed in 1996, was intended to protect free speech
online by removing liability for a newspaper, say, for libelous
comments posted on their websites by readers. The law has since
shielded social media and e-commerce sites from liability in a
variety of lawsuits.
Mazzio, a former Olympic rower, said she was stunned by the
perseverance the young protagonists had displayed in taking on
such a big enterprise against all odds.
"What my Olympic training taught me is 'You know you just
never give up, you never give up.' And you are going to suffer
withering loss," she said in a telephone interview.
"These women are relentless."
Mazzio began her filming by tracking three Jane Does whose
suit against Backpage had first caught her attention.
But it is another two victims, J.S. and M.A. as they are
called in the film, around whom most of the narrative revolves.
In sit-down interviews, both reflected on the hair-raising
abuses they had endured - from having been put on a "leash" by
ruthless pimps with hard drugs to beatings and a stabbing.
J.S. is an articulate young woman from Seattle. In a
pre-ordeal home video that appears in the film, she giggles as
she describes herself as a dedicated violinist and soccer player
with dreams of becoming a doctor.
Ominously, in the film's opening scene, her mother, Nacole,
recounts how years earlier, she had "expected to pick her up
around 5:30 from track practice," only to find that her daughter
had run away.
M.A., a precocious St. Louis teen, "snuck out of the house
with her friends to head back to the school party," says her
mother in the film.
The teenage runaways, 15 and 13 respectively, are among 1.6
million homeless and run-away children in the United States,
according to the film's narrator, Hollywood star Jessica
Chastain. "Within hours of dropping off the radar, thousands of
them will be sex trafficked, a polite term for being repeatedly
For the remainder of the film, "I Am Jane Doe" takes the
viewer on a dizzying journey from courthouse to courthouse where
successive teams of lawyers unsuccessfully butt their heads
against the CDA, only to fail and try again.
In interludes, the young women whose lives have been broken
give voice, along with their mothers, to their roller-coaster
"These children are going up against not only Backpage, but
entrenched corporate interest and federal judges to try and
achieve justice. They're swimming upstream," said Mazzio.
"With the level of violence that they endured, for them to
stand up, I felt I had an obligation to be behind them, to bring
any force that I could to be right behind them - we would be
charging in the battle with them," she told Thomson Reuters
"I Am Jane Doe" opens in select U.S. cinemas on Friday.
Half its profits will be donated to organisations helping
victims of child sex-trafficking, Mazzio said.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Lyndsay
Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)