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Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m. Information in this article, originally published Dec. 7, 2012, was corrected Dec. 11, 2012. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect number for Engrossed Senate Bill 6251.

McKenna won't continue to fight battle against online-sex ads


The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff

A Washington state law aimed at battling online-sex trafficking is likely to be struck down after Attorney General Rob McKenna declined to continue a legal fight over the measure in federal court.

McKenna's office said Friday that it will not continue its defense of Engrossed Senate Bill 6251, one of several measures written by lawmakers earlier this year to combat online-sex trafficking. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill, aimed at online-classified site Backpage.com, into law in March.

The law has been challenged by Backpage.com and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet-advocacy group.

The law was prompted by critics, including Seattle police, who said juvenile prostitutes were advertised by their pimps on Backpage.com.

The online-advertising site, owned by Village Voice Media, has drawn fire nationally for publishing thinly veiled ads for prostitution advertised as "escorts," including some depicting underage girls who typically pose in lingerie and heels, with accompanying text that leaves little doubt about what's being offered to buyers.

The law required Backspace.com and similar sites to prove it made a good-faith attempt to determine the true age of an advertiser before publishing an ad by requiring government ID and keeping a copy of the ID on record.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued on behalf of online library Internet Archive, arguing that targeting Internet service providers was unconstitutional and violated federal law. Backpage.com sued separately.

The organization said the state Legislature passed the law "despite its obvious potential to curtail legitimate speech."

For example, the vague and overbroad statute threatened to impose felony liability not only on those directly engaged in illegal acts but also on those who "indirectly" caused to be "disseminated" any "implicit" offers for commercial sex acts.

That could potentially affect services that merely provide access to information, like Web hosts, ISPs or online libraries, impeding their ability to operate, the organization said in a statement.

Attorneys for Backpage.com and the EFF argued the state law came into conflict with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that protects online-service providers from the acts of its subscribers or users.

In July, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez issued a temporary injunction blocking the law from taking effect. The settlement this week paves the way for the block to become permanent.

McKenna said unless Congress makes changes to that federal law, an appeal to uphold the state law would have been lengthy and costly.

As part of Martinez's order, the state will pay $200,000 to cover legal fees of Backpage.com and the EFF.

Phoenix-based Village Voice Media has asserted it already takes pains to prevent abuses by automatically filtering ads and conducting manual reviews of content.

But critics, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, have said those efforts are woefully inadequate, citing a recent Seattle investigation as an example.

Seattle Detective Todd Novisedlak contacted Backpage.com in June to remove an ad after he verified it featured a 15-year-old girl engaged in prostitution.

The ad was removed, but over the next two weeks, 10 more ads were posted for the same girl, using the same photos and phone number as the original ad, the detective said in a sworn declaration filed in court in support of the state's law.

Novisedlak has been involved in more than 1,200 prostitution investigations, but he has never encountered any person "posting advertisements on the escorts section of Backpage.com who was advertising for legitimate escort services," according to his declaration.

Seattle police said they investigated 57 prostitution cases that originated from ads on Backpage.com between January 2010 and July 2011, and of those, 21 involved girls younger than 18.

Village Voice Media formerly owned the Seattle Weekly and New York's Village Voice before the newspapers were sold to a separate company earlier this year.

After the sale, Seattle Weekly's new publisher, Kenny Stocker, said he planned to pull all escort-based advertising out of the paper. He said the newspaper would continue to advertise other adult businesses.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

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