A teenage child trafficking victim has filed a lawsuit against Village Voice Media, for knowingly allowing her pimp to post ads for her “services” on the popular backpage.com. The pimp, Latasha Jewell McFarland, has already pleaded guilty to prostitution charges, but the victim (going by M.A. in the complaint, as she is still a minor) says that Village Voice knew that the photos being posted of her were illegal but “failed to investigate for fear of what it would learn.”
M.A. says she was 14 when she was found as a runaway by McFarland, who began pimping out M.A. for $100 per sex act (McFarland took half the earnings). In order to advertise M.A.’s services, McFarland took pornographic photos of M.A. and posted them on backpage.com in the personals section for those seeking sex. McFarland pleaded guilty earlier this month to photographing M.A. in pornographic poses, posting child porn on backpage, paying the site for the postings, transporting M.A. for the purpose of pimping her out for sex, and collecting money for M.A.’s sexual services.
In the complaint (.pdf), however, M.A. accuses Village Voice of having knowledge that the explicit photos were 1) of a minor, and 2) for prostitution services. No evidence is outlined in the complaint that explicitly points to Village Voice having this knowledge, but M.A. says the company aided and abetted her pimp in facilitating prostitution and child pornography. She also argues that Village Voice should not be granted immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a law that has historically protected websites from being held liable for the content posted by users.
“Defendant had a strong suspicion that the aforementioned crimes were being committed,” reads the complaint. “Defendant had a desire that these posters accomplished their nefarious illegal prostitution activities so that the posters would return to the website and pay for more posting.”
The lawsuit comes just days after Craigslist testified to members of Congress about the company’s decision to close its own adult services section. Craigslist reiterated that it did more than almost any other site to help authorities catch child traffickers and other illegal activity, but that didn’t stop politicians and critics from continuing to hammer on the site for the mere existence of the adult services section. With the section (and its strict manual review process) gone, the company warned that advertising for prostitution would ooze over to other parts of the site and go elsewhere on the Internet.
“With the removal of adult services and its manual review, Craigslist fears that its utility to help combat child exploitation has been grossly diminished,” Craigslist attorney Elizabeth McDougall said.
Indeed, backpage is one of those sites that has an “anything goes” reputation; it’s not at all surprising to discover that minors were being advertised through the site. Whether or not Village Voice actually knew that the photos were of a minor and that the advertised services were illegal is another story, however, and M.A. will likely have to produce some real evidence of such if she wants the site’s Section 230 immunity waved.
Previously on Wired.com: