U.S. Supreme Court will not examine tech industry legal shield

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By Andrew Chung

<span class="articleLocation”>Jan 9 The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand
a lower court’s decision that an online advertising site accused
by three young women of facilitating child sex trafficking was
protected by a federal law that has shielded website operators
from liability for content posted by others.

The refusal by the justices to take up the women’s appeal in
the case involving the advertising website Backpage.com marked a
victory for the tech industry, which could have faced
far-reaching consequences had the Supreme Court decided to limit
the scope of the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress
in 1996 to protect free speech on the internet.

The women, who sued Backpage and several of its parent
companies in Boston federal court in 2014, alleging that they
were “repeatedly forced as minors to engage in illegal
commercial sex transactions” in Massachusetts and Rhode Island
starting at age 15 by pimps who placed advertisements in the
website’s “escorts” section.

They were appealing a March 2016 ruling by the Boston-based
1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing their case. That
court said the Communications Decency Act grants broad
protections to internet publishers. The Communications Decency
Act prevents an internet service from being held liable as the “publisher or speaker” of its user-generated content.

Over the past two decades, the law has provided an effective
legal shield for the technology industry, protecting social
media and e-commerce sites from liability in a variety of
lawsuits over unsafe products, stolen property and facilitating
prostitution.

However, some judges have ruled that the law has been
stretched too far.

The three women, not identified by name in the lawsuit,
argued that the law is being used to block enforcement of
federal and state laws against human trafficking and could
undermine efforts to combat other crimes such as terrorism and
racketeering.

According to the women, the site profits from the ads and
uses techniques, such as anonymous payments, to help traffickers
avoid police detection.

Backpage, the second-largest U.S. online classified ad
service after Craigslist, has faced scrutiny from the U.S.
Senate as well as civil lawsuits over allegations that the
website facilitates sex trafficking, especially of children.

Its CEO, Carl Ferrer, was arrested last October on criminal
charges including pimping but a California state judge later
threw out the case against Ferrer and Backpage’s controlling
shareholders, ruling that the Communications Decency Act barred
prosecution.

California prosecutors subsequently refiled charges against
the executives, and the case is pending.

The case is Jane Doe No. 1 et al v. Backpage.com, LLC, et al
in the Supreme Court of the United States, No. 16-276

(Additional reporting by Dan Levine)



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