In­ves­ti­gat­ing the on­line en­ablers of child sex-traf­fick­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY JOHN ANDERSON style@wash­post.com

It’s tough get­ting a con­sen­sus on any­thing these days, but child sex abuse and hu­man traf­fick­ing are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered in­de­fen­si­ble crimes. So who’s de­fend­ing them?

Ac­cord­ing to “I Am Jane Doe,” that would be Google. And Mi­crosoft. And Face­book. And Ya­hoo.

Di­rected by Mary Mazzio (“Lemon­ade Sto­ries,” “Un­der­wa­ter Dreams”) and com­ing to Net­flix May 26 af­ter a the­atri­cal run ear­lier this year, the doc­u­men­tary ad­vo­cates for vic­tims of on­line traf­fick­ing while tak­ing prin­ci­pal aim at the clas­si­fied-ad web­site Back­page.com, a no­to­ri­ous venue for sex ads and trans­ac­tions, many in­volv­ing chil­dren. In its in­dict­ment of Back­page.com and the tech com­pa­nies that are in­di­rectly sup­port­ing the web­site, the film may also give a pub­lic re­la­tions boost to mem­bers of Congress work­ing to tighten laws sur­round­ing In­ter­net li­a­bil­ity. In do­ing so, “I Am Jane Doe” may be the rare so­cial-is­sue doc­u­men­tary that has an ef­fect on a so­cial is­sue.

Ac­cord­ing to Sec­tion 230 of the 1996 Com­mu­ni­ca­tions De­cency Act, on­line ser­vice providers can­not be held li­able for third-party con­tent. But that means if some­one sells a 13-year-old on its pages, Back­page says, it isn’t re­spon­si­ble. And so far, court af­ter court has agreed — to the re­lief of First Amend­ment ab­so­lutists, and the Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies men­tioned above, which sup­port, fi­nan­cially, or­ga­ni­za­tions de­fend­ing Back­page’s po­si­tion.

As the film ex­plains — through the voices of vic­tims, their moth­ers, their ad­vo­cates and nar­ra­tor Jes­sica Chas­tain — nei­ther side is let­ting up.

Back­page was once part of Vil­lage Voice Me­dia and is now owned by a Dutch firm, although founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin and chief ex­ec­u­tive Carl Fer­rer have been named in the suits. “I Am Jane Doe” picks up the Back­page saga in 2010 with law­suits filed by girls who were traf­ficked on its pages, and con­tin­ues through a Se­nate sub­com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by Sen. Rob Port­man (R-Ohio) in Jan­uary, as well as crim­i­nal charges of pimp­ing and money laundering brought by thenCal­i­for­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ka­mala D. Har­ris, now a Demo­cratic sen­a­tor. It also fo­cuses on the ef­fort that has thus far made the most head­way — a civil suit that con­tin­ues in Wash­ing­ton state, pi­loted by lawyer Erik Bauer. Back­page will try to get that case dismissed dur­ing a sum­mary judg­ment hear­ing Wed­nes­day. A jury trial is sched­uled for Oct. 9.

“I think we’ll kick their a--,” Bauer said from his of­fice in Ta­coma, Wash. His ar­gu­ment, which has since been adopted by other plain­tiffs, was that be­cause Back­page pro­vided guide­lines about how posters could sculpt their ads to evade law-en­force­ment scru­tiny, it made it­self cul­pa­ble out­side the scope of Sec­tion 230.

Some par­ties to the is­sue dis­agree vig­or­ously — it’s not about sex traf­fick­ing, but about li­a­bil­ity.

“Peo­ple look­ing at dif­fer­ent leg­isla­tive reme­dies are go­ing to have to look at the other con­se­quences of those pro­pos­als,” said Emma Llanso, di­rec­tor of the Free Ex­pres­sion Project at the Cen­ter for Democ­racy and Tech­nol­ogy, one of the groups that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in sup­port of Back­page. She said those con­se­quences could in­clude on­line cen­sor­ship, a dis­in­cen­tive for providers to ac­tu­ally mon­i­tor their con­tent (lest they open them­selves to le­gal li­a­bil­ity), and an in­va­sion of the so­cial me­dia “that we all use ev­ery day.”

Google has con­trib­uted tens of mil­lions to­ward erad­i­cat­ing hu­man traf­fick­ing. So have many of the big tech com­pa­nies. But ac­cord­ing to a re­port is­sued Wed­nes­day by Con­sumer Watch­dog, a pub­lic in­ter­est or­ga­ni­za­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, many of the same com­pa­nies — in­clud­ing Face­book, Mi­crosoft and Ya­hoo, but Google more than any other — have also con­trib­uted to the Cen­ter for Democ­racy and Tech­nol­ogy and the Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion. Dozens of schol­ars, in­sti­tu­tions and pub­lic-in­ter­est groups, many sup­ported by Google and other com­pa­nies, have lob­bied against an over­haul of Sec­tion 230, say­ing that it could change the na­ture of the en­tire In­ter­net. The re­port also al­leges that Google makes $1 bil­lion a year off post­ings for un­law­ful ma­te­rial and ser­vices, from pi­rated movies to child porn to pros­ti­tu­tion.

“If there’s go­ing to be an amend­ment to keep web­sites from help­ing sex traf­fick­ers, the only way it’s go­ing to hap­pen is if Google doesn’t stand in the way” said Jamie Court of Con­sumer Watch­dog. “There’s no rea­son they should ex­cept they fear it’s a slip­pery slope and they’ll be held li­able one day for some­thing less egre­gious than what Back­page is do­ing.

“What’s Google go­ing to do?” Court asked. “Be evil?” (Google’s long­time cor­po­rate motto was “Don’t be evil.”)

Google would only say in an email, through a spokes­woman, “We have long con­trib­uted to many in­de­pen­dent or­ga­ni­za­tions be­cause of their ad­vo­cacy on a wide range of In­ter­net is­sues, in­clud­ing pri­vacy, sur­veil­lance re­form and the open In­ter­net. We will con­tinue to use our tech­nol­ogy to com­bat child sex traf­fick­ing and con­nect vic­tims and sur­vivors with the re­sources they need.”

“I Am Jane Doe” is an un­abashed vic­tim-ad­vo­cacy film and has fol­lowed a route pre­vi­ously trav­eled by “The In­vis­i­ble War” (sex­ual as­sault in the mil­i­tary), “The Hunt­ing Ground” (cam­pus rape) and “Trapped” (the war against re­pro­duc­tive choice): It’s taken its so­cialis­sue ar­gu­ment di­rectly to Congress.

Rep. Ann Wag­ner (R-Mo.) had been work­ing for a year to draft a bill that would ex­clude sex traf­fick­ing from Sec­tion 230 pro­tec­tions, but used the oc­ca­sion of a Fe­bru­ary con­gres­sional screen­ing of “I Am Jane Doe” to an­nounce the Al­low States and Vic­tims to Fight On­line Sex Traf­fick­ing Act, which now has bi­par­ti­san sup­port.

“This is a crim­i­nal is­sue,” said Wag­ner. “Op­po­nents of this bill have been bril­liant in shap­ing their op­po­si­tion as a First Amend­ment is­sue, but that’s bo­gus and they know it.”

“Of course, we all be­lieve in free­dom of speech. At the time this [act] was writ­ten, peo­ple weren’t sell­ing kids on­line, let alone Back­page,” said Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain and one of the an­ti­traf­fick­ing ad­vo­cates who ap­pears in the film, via email. “It’s not a free­dom-of-speech is­sue, it’s a hu­man rights is­sue.”

Wag­ner said she thought “I Am Jane Doe” would be in­stru­men­tal in “help­ing drive this bill across the fin­ish line.” Over the years, films like “An In­con­ve­nient Truth” and “Food Inc.” have prob­a­bly left a con­sid­er­able long-term im­pres­sion on their view­ers, but those view­ers were likely to be sym­pa­thetic be­fore they bought their tick­ets. Con­vinc­ing law­mak­ers is a dif­fer­ent thing en­tirely.

“The film def­i­nitely has cre­ated some ad­di­tional lever­age on the Hill,” said Yiota Souras, se­nior vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral coun­sel at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren, based in Alexan­dria, Va. “Mary gave a voice to what a lot of at­tor­neys and non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions have been work­ing on for years.”

Port­man agreed. “We need to raise aware­ness about it, and that’s what this film does,” he said, adding that ear­lier this year, the mem­bers of his Se­nate Per­ma­nent Sub­com­mit­tee on In­ves­ti­ga­tions, who in­clude Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), “were able to show that [Back­page] know­ingly tried to take out ev­i­dence of crim­i­nal­ity to in­crease their own prof­its.” He was look­ing for­ward to draft­ing leg­is­la­tion that “nar­rows” Sec­tion 230.

“I think the tech com­mu­nity is will­ing to work with us,” he said, “but they are un­der­stand­ably con­cerned that if you go too far it will af­fect the abil­ity to have a free In­ter­net. We all get that — we’re not try­ing to shut down the In­ter­net. What we’re try­ing to do is make it work bet­ter and safer.”

Mazzio sim­ply hopes her film will spare a few chil­dren the hor­rors re­counted in the film.

“There’s a cul­tural view of these crimes that says ‘It’s kind of sorta pros­ti­tu­tion, and what’s the big deal about pros­ti­tu­tion?’” Mazzio said. “You hear about a kid found in a dump­ster and you say, ‘Oh, that poor trou­bled kid.’ … But the scope of this prob­lem shows it’s sim­ply not re­al­ity.”

RICHARD E. SCHULTZ/50 EGGS FILMS

“MA” stands in New York dur­ing the film­ing of “I Am Jane Doe,” a doc­u­men­tary ad­vo­cat­ing for vic­tims of on­line sex-traf­fick­ing.

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