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CDA bars action claiming websites facilitated sex trafficking

By Rebecca Campbell | Apr 18, 2016


BOSTON (Legal Newsline) – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has delivered a win to Backpage.com in the case of three young girls who alleged they were victims of human trafficking after the website ran online prostitution ads featuring them, affirming that websites are immune under the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

Under Section 230 (c)(1) of the CDA, the First Circuit stated in March that “claims that a website facilitates illegal conduct through its posting rules necessarily treat the website as a publisher or speaker of content provided by third parties and, thus, are precluded.”

Backpage.com, which is a website that sells online classified advertising, has been sued many times, but this lawsuit saw three young girls alleging that Backpage.com's business practices led to thousands of rapes of teenage women.

They claimed that Backpage.com was violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) which directly applies to those who “knowingly benefits financially” from “participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known was engaged in" sex trafficking.

The plaintiffs were arguing that CDA immunity did not apply to their TVPRA claim, as they were seeking relief for Backpage.com’s alleged “participation” in sex trafficking and not its harmful exercise of its editorial functions.

The First Circuit disagreed, dismissing their claims.

According to Robert Rogers, senior counsel at Holland & Knight LLC, there are more victims of violent crime seeking relief against website operators for injuries caused by other people that they met through the Internet.

“There was a time when the more common case implicating the CDA involved libel/defamation plaintiffs,” he said. “Many of the cases involving attacks on CDA immunity lately that have grabbed headlines have involved victims of violent crimes.”

In 1996, Congress addressed the right to publish the speech of others in the Information Age when it enacted the CDA.

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