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Today a federal court will review a Washington state law targeting Backpage.com that requires classifieds advertising sites to check the age of individuals listed in ads for sexual services, two prominent internet freedom leaders are criticizing Village Voice Media for its abuse of free speech and free internet principles to maintain an unethical business operation in its classifieds site Backpage.com, where children and teens have been advertised and sold for sex.
Timothy Karr, senior director of Strategy for Free Press, the nation’s largest digital rights and media reform organization, and Sascha Meinrath, Director of the New America Foundation’s “Open Technology Institute,” which works to strengthen communities and communications through technology development, applied learning, and policy reform, are denouncing Village Voice Media’s attempt to hide behind the First Amendment and the federal Communications Decency Act, which states that online service providers are not responsible for the content of ads placed by third parties.
“We need a free and open internet and we need to abide by the Communications Decency Act; but it is morally reprehensible when a company like Village Voice Media hides behind the false pretense of Free Speech to profit to the tune of $22 million a year, while it knows children are being bought and sold via advertisements on its site. Village Voice Media needs to remove human trafficking from its business model,” said Karr.
"Free speech is a foundation for participatory democracy, but it is no defense for the abuse of children," stated Meinrath. "When corporations like Village Voice Media claim that free speech allows them to abrogate the fundamental human rights of minors, they undermine the very underpinnings of civil society."
Wendi Adelson, an attorney, author and clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law, also addressed the free speech issue in a column last week on Huffington Post, writing: "Free speech matters critically to a free society, but free speech has never been thought critical to encompass facilitating criminal attacks on children."
The criticism against Backpage has come from many different directions and has been mounting since August 2011 when 51 of the nation’s attorneys general wrote a letter to Backpage.com, demanding the adult services section of the site close. Since then, 700 multi-faith religious leaders, 53 leading anti-trafficking experts and organizations, 19 U.S. Senators, state and city lawmakers around the country, over a dozen prominent musicians, more than a quarter of a million citizens, and others have called on Village Voice Media to exit the adult ad business.
Last week, FAIR Girls, a social service organization dedicated to preventing the exploitation of girls worldwide with empowerment and education, launched an online and television ad that portrays the true story of a 13-year old girl who was repeatedly advertised for sex by her pimp on Backpage.com. The ad calls on the public to sign a petition on SignOn.org, demanding Village Voice Media shut down the adult section of its website. The ad also calls on the public to contact 26 major advertisers in Village Voice Media’s 13 flagship publications, and ask them to discontinue their advertisements in Village Voice Media newspapers until the company permanently closes the adult section of Backpage.com.
As Malika Saada Saar, Executive Director of Human Rights Project for Girls, has stated, "Backpage is a rogue entity that has unapologetically made the exploitation of children its business model, and as such has disregarded the tech industry standard for protecting children that leaders like Google and Microsoft have set."
Human Rights Project for Girls is a human rights organization dedicated to protecting vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.