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Backpage.com targeted by Wash. lawmakers over escort ads, child sex trade

A page of classified advertisements in the back of the Nov. 12 issue of New York magazine is shown in New York, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007. The magazine has agreed to stop accepting sex ads after the local chapter of the National Organization for Women threatened protests outside the popular weekly publication, accusing it of being a "marketing arms of the organized crime world of prostitution and human trafficking." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) AP Photo/Kathy Willens

One adult ad that appeared on backpage.com
backpage.com
(CBS/AP) OLYMPIA, Wash. - Washington state lawmakers on Friday heard impassioned pleas to clamp down on classified-advertising companies that don't require ID, before allowing sex-related ads to be posted online.

Speaking at a Senate hearing, clergy members, law enforcement, and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn condemned Backpage.com, an online clearinghouse with a robust adult escort section, for not adequately attempting to verify the age of those listed in the ads on its site.

Backpage.com has been the nation's leading source of online sex escort ads since Craigslist.org shuttered its adult services section in September 2010.

Critics estimate Backpage's parent company Village Voice Media makes more than $22 million per year from sex ads, a figure the company has not disputed. It owns 13 weekly newspapers, including Seattle Weekly.

"They ran a front-page cover story attempting to minimize the nature of the problem, saying it was exaggerated," said McGinn, referring to a piece published in all but one of the company's papers last June. "They were also trying to obscure the fact that online advertising is an accelerant" of child sex-trafficking.

In response to the story, McGinn met with Village Voice Media executives, asking them to require ID before publishing sex-related ads. Backpage.com declined to do so, noting it works with various law enforcement agencies in weeding out suspected cases of child sex trafficking. In response, the city pulled all advertising from Seattle Weekly. Unlike Backpage.com, Seattle Weekly does require an in-person ID check for sex-related ads in its print edition.

In August, a letter signed by more than 40 state attorneys general and sent to Backpage.com called the site a "hub" for human trafficking.

Village Voice Media attorney Steve Suskin recently told The Associated Press that the Washington state bill would violate the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, adding the company would fight the measure should it become law.

Bruce Johnson, an attorney who is a leading scholar on the First Amendment and advertising, said the bill may also be at odds with the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause and the First Amendment, Johnson said.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said she is encouraged by the support her colleagues have shown for the bill, though it may need some tweaking.

"We'll see if we need to make a few changes," she said. "We're trying to put it in the best language we can" to undermine the court challenges it would likely generate.

  • Barry Leibowitz

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