(TACOMA, Wash.) — Three Washington teenagers have filed a personal injury lawsuit against the classified ad website Backpage.com, alleging that the site allowed them to be forced into prostitution for the company’s own financial gain.
The three unnamed girls, now aged 15 through 17, filed the suit in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Wash. In the suit they allege that through the adult listings in Backpage.com the company allowed them to be raped — and that it profited as a result, making millions of dollars each month.
“Our kids were hurt by Backpage, so we’re going after Backpage,” Erik L. Bauer, an attorney representing the three girls, told ABC News.
Images of the underage girls were posted to Backpage.com, which is owned by Village Voice Media, beginning in 2010. The site is a frequent online destination for escort services. The ads were posted by three men who pimped the girls out and kept all of the profits for themselves, the lawsuit claims.
The complaint states that BackPage.com did nothing to prevent these men from exploiting the underage girls, and claims that the site, “knowingly developed a nationwide online marketplace for illicit commercial sex” and, “developed a reputation for itself as a website where pimps and prostitutes advertise commercial sex.”
The suit says there is little to prevent anyone from posting ads offering prostitution on Backpage.com, other than a “posting rules” screen that asks users to certify, “I will not post any solicitation directly or in ‘coded’ fashion for any illegal service, including exchanging sexual favors for money or other valuable consideration.” The site also asks users to verify they are 18 years old, and says that posting by a minor will be subject to criminal prosecution.
In Tacoma, the site charges $10 per ad for a posting to escort services, and allows eight pictures to be included. The site also offers a feature to repost escort ads automatically, for an additional fee.
The lawsuit against Backpage.com says the site’s rules are hardly a deterrent to those promoting prostitution. The pimp who took advantage of the three girls, the suit says, was legally an adult. The three girls are identified in the complaint only as S.L, L.C. and J.S.
“Other than requiring the poster of the ad to agree to this term by ‘clicking’ on the posting rules page, Backpage.com does nothing to verify the age of the escorts who appear in its prostitution ads, even though it knows that pimps are usually the ones who create the ads, or force their minor sex slaves to do so,” the complaint says.
Baruti Hopson, 33, was the pimp who exploited the three girls via Backpage.com, the girls’ lawyer told ABC News. Hopson was convicted in 2011 on multiple counts of child rape and promoting the sexual abuse of a minor.
Seattle attorney Liz McDougall, who represents Backpage.com, said the lawsuit will not pass legal muster and is barred by federal law. She also said that Backpage.com employs a triple-tier prevention system and has a “robust system” to aid law enforcement when the company receives a subpoena — which she told ABC News can happen five times per day.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a decision Friday in favor of Backpage.com’s right to continue its business without stricter age verification.
Last week Backpage asked a Washington judge to issue an injunction against a state law that would require classified ad companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related advertisements.
Attorneys for Backpage.com argued that the law will force sex trafficking further underground, where it will be far more difficult to police, and said that the law infringes on free speech.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez granted the injunction. Bauer, the attorney for the three girls, responded that it was “ridiculous” to call this an issue of freedom of speech.
“How about, basic freedom for kids? How about freedom to live life happy and joyous? Freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are constitutional rights. And children have them. These freedoms are more import than corporate freedom-of-speech rights,” he said in an interview with ABC News.
Bauer also argued that the nature of Backpage’s listings create a “volume business.” He said the girls were sent to clients for sex up to 20 times per day. He said he doesn’t believe that the company’s “triple-tier prevention system” makes a difference.
McDougall said that closing down Backpage.com will not prevent the exploitation of children. She said the solution lies in stopping the demand.
“What I find frustrating with this lawsuit is that we finally have a focus on child trafficking in the U.S., and we’ve ignored that, until five or six years ago,” she said. “[Now] all of the attention is being focused on Backpage. If you shut down Backpage, it’s not going to solve the problem.
“The endgame is that the same activity will continue to occur, but it will just move into the deeper part of the web — or offshore,” she said. “When it goes offshore, they’re not in the jurisdiction of law enforcement. There’s nothing we can do.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Eugene Scott, CNN
Ryan Browne and Evan Perez, CNN