Washington's Engrossed Senate Bill 6251, crafted to curb online sex trafficking and the alleged sexual exploitation of minors by Backpage.com, died Thursday. In deciding that continuing to fight the legal merits of the law - which was signed by Gov. Gregoire in March - would be both challenging and costly, the State of Washington opted to drop its defense of the legislation.
Judge Ricardo Martinez, who had long been leaning in that direction and imposed a temporary injunction preventing the law from taking effect in June until its legality could be deciphered, will soon sign court court documents striking down the law after the involved parties signed a stipulation to settle the case this week.
The law would have required websites like Backpage.com - which was affiliated with Seattle Weekly and 12 other alt-press papers across the country until a group of senior managers from Village Voice Media Holdings, under the new name Voice Media Group, acquired the papers in September - to verify the ages of anyone depicted in escort ads by checking a government-issued ID. If a company published an ad depicting a minor - whether directly or indirectly, through a user-generate-content model - under SB 6251 that company could have been held criminally responsible.
Via a lawsuit, both Backpage.com and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, acting on behalf of the Internet Archive, argued that the sex-trafficking law was a clear violation of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, along with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
"First Amendment hell is paved with good intentions," said Backpage.com's Michael Lacey when reached for comment.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation elaborated:
"Threatening to throw service providers in jail for what their users say or do is misguided, incredibly harmful to online free expression generally, and violates federal law," said Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman in a written statement. "We are grateful that the state of Washington has agreed that this statute cannot and will not be enforced against the Internet Archive or anyone else."
"The protection offered by CDA 230 has allowed YouTube to host user-uploaded videos, Craigslist to host classified ads, Facebook and Twitter to offer social networking, and the Internet Archive to offer billions of archived webpages documenting the evolution of the Internet," said Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo in the same statement. "While everyone involved in this case agrees with the goal of SB 6251, overbroad laws that create potential liability for general purpose Internet service providers and forums is not the right way to hold sex traffickers accountable."
When contacted this morning, Dan Sytman with the state Attorney General's Office said the AG was working on a statement and would be in touch.
Update: In a statement, Attorney General Rob McKenna said Martinez's injunction made the odds of winning an expensive court battle long.
"We disagree with Judge Martinez," McKenna said. "We do not believe that advertisements for a service illegal in every state - prostitution - are protected by the Constitution. That part of his decision would likely be overturned upon appeal. But unless Congress acts to revise the section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, an appeal will be extremely challenging and costly. It is unfortunate that because of this ruling, Backpage will continue to profit from sex ads for kids and others. Congress must revisit the CDA in order to close a loophole that allows companies such as Backpage to make millions advertising an illegal service that takes a particularly devastating toll on children."
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's office - which has been vocal in its support of SB 6251 - did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In addition to striking down the law, the state has been ordered to pay the attorneys' fees in the suit, totaling $200,000 according to the official court filing.
You can find that filing on the following page ...