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Attorneys general go after other online 'adult services' ads

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2010 -  Fresh from a victory that forced Craigslist to remove the adult services section from its website, a group of 21 state attorneys general is taking the same approach against Backpage.com, a similar site allegedly involved in a St. Louis prostitution case. Despite the success against Craigslist, the attorneys general are operating from what legal experts say is a weak legal position. Federal law generally immunizes websites from responsibility for third-party postings.

This immunization did not stop a suit on behalf of an under-aged female against Village Voice Media, the parent company of Backpage. The suit was filed against Village Voice Media in a U.S. District Court in St. Louis on Sept. 16, seeking $150,000 in damages and alleging that the corporation knowingly allowed a pimp to advertise services provided by the under aged-girl.

The girl, identified as M.A. in the lawsuit, was said by prosecutors to have met a St. Louis woman, Latasha McFarland, when M.A. ran away from home at the age of 14. McFarland, responsible for posting the ads on Backpage, already pled guilty to charges of prostitution earlier this month in federal court. Her sentencing, scheduled for Dec. 1, could carry up to five years in prison.

The details of the case are familiar in light of all the recent media coverage given to Craigslist over the controversy of its adult services section. After facing a similar lawsuit last year, in which the Cook County sheriff's department argued the site played an active role in the promotion of illegal sex acts, Craigslist was met with pressure from attorneys general this August, urging the service to remove the adult services section of its website.

On Sept. 3, Craigslist responded to the pressure by replacing the title of the adult services section of its site with a black bar bearing the word "censored." It was, at first, unclear whether the change was permanent or temporary, until the issue was settled last Wednesday. Yielding to pressure, Craigslist announced at a hearing before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that the removal of the adult ads was, indeed, permanent. During the announcement, Craigslist defended its right to carry such advertisements.

Faced with the same situation, Backpage has taken a different approach. In response to the push from attorneys general, Backpage announced in a blog post that it would not close its adult classifieds website. Backpage referred to the move by the attorneys general as an act of political strategy during an election season and an attempt to censor free speech. The site defended the legality of its services multiple times in the post.

In the case of both Backpage and Craigslist, the online sites have a strong legal arugment. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act explicitly exempts interactive computer services from being held liable for content posted by third-party users. Current interpretations of Section 230 have protected interactive services from a host of different user-generated content, including cyber-bullying, racial discrimination, and pornography.

Due to the nature of the content at issue in such cases, the Communications Decency Act has generated much debate. Some claim the act does the exact opposite of what its name implies by protecting and promoting indecent behavior online. On the other hand, supporters of the act and the current precedent, interpret Section 230 as an important defense of free speech in the age of the Internet. This interpretation suggests that if computer services were held liable for third-party content, the free flow of ideas and information would be chilled because sites would remove any content that drew complaints.

Even though Section 230 makes computer services immune from suits for third-party content, it doesn't appear to immunize them from political pressure brought on them by public officials.

Kraig Koch is a graduate student in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Prior to SIUC, he earned his Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Illinois University and, afterward, spent a year working for the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court. Kraig will graduate with a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management in May 2011.

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