(Adds quote from Legal Momentum)
By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Backpage.com,
an online classified advertising site, which officials contend
promotes sex trafficking, was hit on Tuesday with U.S. lawsuits
saying it hid the crime by rewriting ads offering children for
Backpage filters out explicit words, supplies code phrases
and helps conceal trafficking ads from law enforcement,
according to the lawsuits filed by two anti-trafficking groups
and an unidentified woman who said she was raped as a result of
a Backpage ad.
Some 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of
trafficking, most commonly for sexual exploitation, according to
the lawsuits filed in Florida and Arizona on behalf of Florida
Abolitionist and the Sojourner Center, an Arizona group that
assists trafficking and domestic violence survivors.
Most sex trafficking victims are children, and most are
advertised or sold online, according to a U.S. Senate
subcommittee report released last month that accused Backpage of
editing posts to remove evidence of child sex trafficking.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has
said more than 70 percent of the reports it gets of trafficked
children involve Backpage, based in Dallas, Texas.
According to the lawsuits, traffickers can pay extra for
Backpage to write and design their ads, making them effective
and less likely to draw legal attention.
"Backpage helped create ads offering children and others for
commercial sex in violation of numerous state and federal
statutes," said David Boies, chairman of the law firm Boies
Schiller Flexner which filed the lawsuits with Legal Momentum -
The Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Carol Robles-Román, president of Legal Momentum, described
the trafficking of teenage girls as a major human rights
"Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil," she said.
An attorney for Backpage said she had not seen the lawsuits
and could not comment.
The lawsuits follow previous cases filed last month, all
challenging a law that shields online publishers from liability
for content on their sites.
The cases draw on the Senate subcommittee report that found
Backpage removed words that indicated a person being advertised
was a child, such as "school girl" and "innocent". Backpage
would then post the sanitized ad, the report said.
In previous cases accusing Backpage of promoting
trafficking, the website has successfully argued that it is
merely hosting content, not creating it.
Backpage has said it is shielded by a federal law that
protects free speech on the internet.
According to the Senate report, Backpage's adult services
section carries more than 200 times more ads than does its jobs
section and gets 500 times more page views.
Backpage has "made millions of dollars in profits each year
from websites that they designed and intended to be used, and
that they knew were being used, for illegal sex trafficking,
including of children," said the Florida lawsuit.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Katie Nguyen. 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.