Ropes & Gray Litigation Team Files Federal Lawsuit Against Backpage.com’s Online Child Sex Trade
Ropes & Gray today announced the filing of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against Backpage.com, a website that transmits the vast majority of Internet advertisements for illegal commercial sex in the United States, including online child sex advertising.
The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of two young women. The first plaintiff, referred to in the court papers as Jane Doe No. 1, was a victim of sex trafficking in 2012 and 2013 when she was age 15 and 16. She was sold for sex more than 1,000 times over an 18-month period at locations in greater Boston and in Rhode Island. The second plaintiff, Jane Doe No. 2, was trafficked at age 15 in various locations in Massachusetts between 2010 and 2012.
The complaint alleges that the defendants, Backpage.com LLC, its parent company, Camarillo Holdings LLC, known until recently as Village Voice Media Holdings, and New Times Media LLC created a business model to knowingly promote, support, contribute to and benefit from child sex trafficking in the United States in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 as well as the Massachusetts Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2010.
In addition, the lawsuit claims that the defendants engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by means of an ultimately successful scheme to become the dominant player in the online sex trade by repeated misrepresentations to law enforcement and non-profit organizations that Backpage.com was committed to eliminating child sex trafficking from its website by various means, including adopting readily available analytic methods that would enable them to identify advertisements involving children who are being trafficked. In fact, while law enforcement agencies and others were enticed to support the efforts of Backpage.com, the suit claims that defendants did not and never intended to follow through on those promises.
“As a result of the determined efforts of Backpage.com, the market for online commercial sex has grown, the demand for children for sale has expanded, and the practices of Backpage.com contributed to fueling that demand,” said John Montgomery, a nationally recognized trial lawyer and the former managing partner of Ropes & Gray, who is leading a team of attorneys working on a pro bono basis.
The complaint alleges that Jane Doe No. 1 and Jane Doe No. 2 were each trafficked as part of separate so-called “stables” of young girls who were moved repeatedly by the traffickers from city to city, usually after stays of as little as a day or two, after the traffickers placed advertisements in each city on Backpage.com.
The lawsuit was filed after a lengthy review of Backpage.com’s practices. It asserts that the website’s owners intentionally played up their efforts to combat the online sex trade, enabling the site to shield itself from scrutiny as it increased its share of the online sex advertising market.
“The creators of Backpage.com systematically misrepresented their enterprise to law enforcement agencies, non-profit advocacy organizations, and the media about the defendants’ commitment to serve as the ‘sheriff’ of the internet to eliminate online child sex trafficking,” Montgomery said. “As a result of the scheme, Backpage.com secured the support of many opponents of child sex trafficking, substantially decreasing public, legislative, and media scrutiny of its enterprise, enabling its business strategy to thrive.”
Update: On Nov. 6, Ropes & Gray filed an amended complaint, which adds a third plaintiff to the action, and which also adds claims for unauthorized commercial use of the photographic images in violation of state “right of publicity” and federal copyright statutes.