Ropes & Gray announced today the filing of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against the company Backpage.com, LLC, its CEO Carl Ferrer, and its co-owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin (together, “Backpage”), on behalf of three victims of online child sex trafficking on the Backpage.com website.
Backpage operates an online marketplace that hosts the vast majority of Internet advertisements for illegal commercial sex in the United States, including online child sex advertising. The lawsuit includes detailed allegations that Backpage routinely unilaterally alters postings for the purpose of concealing from law enforcement that the subject of the illicit advertisement is a child. Backpage makes these alterations, the lawsuit alleges, specifically in order to minimize the risk of law enforcement detection of child sex trafficking on the website and thereby to enhance the revenues of the business.
This latest lawsuit against Backpage follows the dismissal of an earlier case on behalf of three other victims of child sex trafficking on Backpage.com. In that case, the courts determined that Backpage was immune from liability under state and federal anti-trafficking laws because the plaintiffs’ complaint did not sufficiently allege that Backpage was anything more than a “publisher” of illicit of advertisements created entirely by third parties. The new lawsuit is based, in part, on a U.S. Senate investigation’s revelations that, rather than engage in traditional publishing functions, Backpage in fact unilaterally and materially alters sexually explicit advertisements specifically in order to conceal from law enforcement the fact that the advertisement involves a child rather than an adult.
The report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released in January 2017, was based on one million documents that the Senate obtained through subpoenas enforced by the courts, and only after 18 months of resistance from Backpage. These documents, as well as testimony by former employees of the company, showed that “Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its adult ads,” and that “Backpage knows that it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking” through this active and purposeful concealment.
Jane Doe No. 1 was a victim of sex trafficking starting in November 2013, when she was 15 years old, sold for sex to men across Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. She was raped over 600 times over the course of four months. The second plaintiff, Jane Doe No. 2, was sex trafficked for three years starting in 2013 when she was 14 years old in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Over those three years, she was raped thousands of times. The third plaintiff, Jane Doe No. 3, was sex trafficked when she was 15 years old in Massachusetts and Florida.
The civil lawsuit alleges that Backpage violated two criminal statutes, the U.S. Trafficking Victim Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and the Massachusetts Anti-Trafficking Act of 2010, and Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 93A in their operation of Backpage.com. The anti-trafficking statutes allow victims of child sex trafficking to bring civil actions against entities or individuals who participate or aid sex traffickers in violation of the statutes.
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