State House passes bill pressuring sex ad sellers

State House passes bill pressuring sex ad sellers
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - The Washington state Legislature on Monday approved a bill that goes after classified advertising companies that don't demand ID to ensure sex-related ads posted online don't feature children.

The measure that unanimously passed the House on Monday makes it a felony to knowingly sell or disseminate an ad for commercial sex that features a minor. The Senate passed the bill earlier this month, and it now goes to the governor for her signature.

Shared Hope International, an anti-sex-trafficking group headed by former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., has compiled a list of dozens of cases in 15 states in which girls were allegedly sold for sex on Backpage.com, most within the past year.

The Seattle Police Department says it has linked 22 cases of child prostitution since 2010 to girls who were advertised as escorts on the website.

The bill targets Backpage.com, which has been the nation's leading source of online sex escort ads since Craigslist.org shuttered its adult services section in September 2010. Critics estimate that Backpage.com's owner, Village Voice Media Holdings LLC, makes more than $22 million per year from sex-related ads. The Phoenix-based company, which also owns 13 weekly newspapers including Seattle Weekly, has not disputed that figure.

Throughout the legislative session, lawmakers have struggled to craft legislation going after Backpage.com that doesn't run afoul of the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act, which grants broad protections to websites for speech made by third parties.

Steve Suskin, a lawyer for Village Voice Media, did not immediately return a phone call left after hours Monday night. But previously, he has argued that the measure is in conflict with federal law.

Suskin has said that said Backpage.com works with law enforcement agencies to weed out suspected cases of child sex trafficking.

The bill passed Monday makes a defense available when the seller makes a genuine attempt to check the identification of the person in that ad and can produce a record of the identification used to verify their age.

The bill was one of several sex trafficking measures passed Monday by the House, all unanimously. One would allow victims to file civil claims in sex trafficking cases, and another would go after those profiting from a minor engaging in a sexual performance.