Bill to combat child escort ads on Backpage.com signed into law

OLYMPIA, Washington, USA (3/29/12) — Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bipartisan anti-trafficking bill to keep minors from being exploited through online ads for escort services such as Backpage.com.

“I am ecstatic this anti-trafficking legislation is now law, the first of its kind in the country. This makes the strongest possible statement that there should be no selling of minors online – or anywhere,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D—Seattle, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6251. “I worked with Democratic and Republican colleagues, Attorney General Rob McKenna, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, Seattle Councilmember Tim Burgess, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Port of Seattle Commission President Gael Tarleton, former Rep. Velma Veloria, the ACLU, Allied Daily Newspapers and others to ensure this bill passes constitutional muster as well as the federal Communications Decency Act.”

“Washington is again leading the way, this time passing one of the most aggressive anti-trafficking laws in the country,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire. “With support from a broad coalition, this bill serves to protect kids and the most vulnerable from the dangers of sex trafficking. I thank Sen. Kohl-Welles for her leadership on this issue.”
“Human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry that often takes advantage of the most vulnerable members of our society – our children, and even those with developmental disabilities,” said Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, who sponsored another bill to make it a class B felony to force a developmentally-disabled person into prostitution. “We’ve accomplished a lot, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We must do everything in our power to raise awareness of these crimes, give our judicial system more authority to punish the perpetrators, and provide help for the victims.”
Backpage.com, whose parent company is The Village Voice, makes at least $22 million a year from online adult escort ads, but refuses to verify the ages of those who place the ads or are depicted in them, even though its print edition published in the Seattle Weekly requires in-person age verification. This results in minors being sold online into prostitution and sex-trafficking. All state attorneys general have called on Backpage.com to stop selling online adult escort ads.
Kohl-Welles’ bill creates a new offense, making it illegal to knowingly publish an escort ad that involves a minor. To avoid possible criminal charges, classified advertising companies will be motivated to try to verify ages of escorts in sex-related postings. The new law offers an affirmative defense to prosecution for advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor if the advertiser can produce documentation showing a bona fide attempt to verify the age of the person in the ad.
“This groundbreaking, bipartisan bill responds to the public’s outrage over the exploitation of vulnerable kids – including runaways and addicts – by certain businesses,” said McKenna. “Just weeks after Sen. Kohl-Welles’ legislation received national attention, legislators in Connecticut introduced a similar proposal. We expect that other states will soon follow Washington’s lead.”

“This bill makes our state a national leader in protecting children from sexual exploitation. From Senator Kohl-Welles’ tireless work on this issue to Gov. Gregoire’s signature today, our state elected leaders have come together to lead the nation in the prevention of underage sex trafficking” said McGinn. “This innovative legislation provides a national model for other states to follow, and I hope to see this approach adopted across the country.”
“Washington was the first state to criminalize human trafficking and today took another giant step by making advertisers accountable for their role in the exploitation of children,” said Burgess. “The unanimous bipartisan support for this new law signals that we are united in our efforts to stop the horrific violence against children through coercive prostitution.”

“This new law recognizes that the sale of children for commercial sexual abuse either online or in print is unacceptable. The Legislature has once again moved the ball forward in the fight against human trafficking,” said Satterberg.
“This is another step forward in our fight to protect the most vulnerable citizens,” said Tarleton. “When we work together, we have the power to stop trafficking.”

“This is great news! With the first amendment rights concerns addressed, this law will be a great tool for those of us in the anti-trafficking arena to help women and girls who are victims of human trafficking,” said Veloria, who pioneered anti-trafficking efforts in the Legislature back in 2002.”

Read more at Press Release or NY Times article

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