SEATTLE-- Rob McKenna and 45 other attorneys general are asking a classified ads website to explain how it handles postings for adult services.
The attorneys general said in a letter to Backpage.com on Wednesday that hundreds of ads on the website are for prostitution. The letter says the site attracts people who seek to exploit minors.
"It doesn't take forensic training to know that nearly every one of these ads is for illegal services," said McKenna, Washington's attorney general. "The only way for Backpage to completely stop child sex trafficking on its site is to take down its adult service advertisements altogether."
Sam Fifer, an attorney for Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage.com, said the company has received the letter.
"[We] are looking at it carefully and are working diligently on a response," Fifer said Wednesday.
McKenna explained in a press conference Wednesday morning that his office and two other attorneys general have found hundreds of examples of ads on Backpage.com that are clearly for illegal services. Just last week, an investigator from Seattle's Vice and High Risk Victims Unit said they found a 16-year-old posting a sex ad on a public library computer.
State leaders want Backpage.com to prove that it is monitoring the site to prevent illegal activity. They are asking the company to willingly provide information in lieu of a subpoena.
But legally speaking, the attorneys general might not be able to take action against the site because of the federal Communications Decency Act passed by Congress in 1996.
"It basically says Backpage.com cannot be held liable for third party content, which includes the advertisements," said attorney Bruce Johnson, an Internet law and First amendment expert at Davis Wright Tremaine law firm.
Judges have continuously sided with sites like Backpage.com in situations like this, Johnson said. Earlier this month a judge in Missouri dismissed a federal lawsuit filed by a teenage runaway who accused Backpage.com of facilitating her entry into the world of prostitution.
"There's probably not a good legal remedy here," Johnson said.
That might explain why McKenna and the other attorneys general are waging more of a public relations battle right now. McKenna admits the letter sent to Backpage.com is not making a legal argument.
"We're really talking about, 'What is the right thing to do here?'" he said.
McKenna hopes Backpage.com will follow in the steps of Craigslist, which closed its adult services section last year after attorneys general and others raised concerns it could not effectively screen out illegal ads.
Backpage.com is owned by Village Voice Media, the parent company of the Seattle Weekly, and contains ads for escorts and other adult services. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn earlier this year ordered city departments to pull their advertisements from Seattle Weekly over concerns that theBackpage.com postings involve underage prostitution.
In a statement today, Mayor McGinn praised the new developments to regulate Backpage.com.
“I thank Attorney General Rob McKenna and the attorneys general across the country for calling on Backpage.com to stop being an accelerant for the sexual exploitation of children. Today’s announcement by 46 attorneys general is further evidence of the broad and deep public desire for Village Voice Media to protect our children and change its practices,” McGinn said.
Mayors of at least seven other Western Washington cities have also voiced concerns.