| SEATTLE, July 20
SEATTLE, July 20 A U.S. district judge heard
arguments on Friday on whether to block a tough Washington state
law requiring advertising sites to verify the age of people
depicted in sex ads following a challenge by Backpage.com.
The law, passed unanimously by Washington lawmakers in
February, makes it a felony to knowingly publish ads featuring
children or teens under age 18. Such actions would be punishable
by up to five years in prison and $10,000 fine per violation.
"Our state is a hotbed for the recruitment, transportation
and sale of human beings," said Dan Sytman, spokesman for the
state attorney general's office. "That awareness, and a strong
desire to protect kids from being exploited, spurred action."
Backpage.com, which publishes most of the adult-services
Internet ads in the United States, challenged the law, arguing
that it violates the U.S. Constitution, is too broad, vague and
unenforceable, and would make it harder for police to
investigate sex crimes by driving underage prostitution
"It's an ill-conceived and misguided law that is likely to
lead to perverse results," Backpage.com's attorney James C.
Grant said. "It could actually lead to an increase in sex
trafficking, not a decrease."
District Judge Ricardo Martinez temporarily blocked the
law's enforcement last month, and will decide next week whether
to issue a preliminary injunction.
A hearing on a similar law in Tennessee is due in August.
Both cases are being watched closely by other states considering
similar legislation, including New York and New Jersey.
"Many states would like to do more to protect kids from
being sold for sex online," Sytman said.
Backpage.com is part of Village Voice Media, which also owns
The Seattle Weekly, L.A. Weekly and Village Voice. The Internet
Archive, a nonprofit digital library, has joined its lawsuit,
although state officials insist the law doesn't apply to
automated archives, or to sites like Facebook and Twitter that
may unknowingly host ads for underage prostitutes.
Online prostitution advertising generated at least $3.1
million in revenue in February, on five U.S. websites, an
increase of 9.8 percent from a year earlier, according to
interactive media and classified advertising consultant AIM
Group. Nearly 80 percent of the revenue was attributed to
Backpage.com, AIM said in a report published March 22.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)