In a piece for Salon today, Tracy Clark-Flory covers a new Washington State law that makes it a felony for web pages like the Village Voice Media-owned Backpage.com to knowingly publish ads for underage prostitutes. VVM, which owns Seattle Weekly, has been linked repeatedly to child sex trafficking; just this week, investment firm Goldman Sachs dumped its 16 percent share in VVM over concerns about ads for underage prostitutes on Backpage.

Clark-Flory's piece quotes state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36), who says that she would "love to have the escort services section shut down completely as there [are] very likely individuals 18 and over who are lured, then trapped, too,” but acknowledges, “I doubt our new law will accomplish that.”

Kohl-Welles tells PubliCola that ultimately, "I would like to see [online escort advertising] banned. I don't come at this from a moralistic or prudish point of view, but I think that girls 18 years old and older get lured into and trapped into prostitution" too.

However, knowing that banning all escort ads would be a heavy lift, constitutionally speaking, Kohl-Welles says that her "original intent" in writing the law was to require escorts to provide proof that they were 18 or older in person. After state attorneys advised her that such a requirement might still violate the constitutional right to freedom of the press, she says, she and the bill's other sponsors rewrote the bill to require companies like Backpage to prove that they made a "reasonable attempt" at confirming escorts' ages.

"We kept asking, what does constitute a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, what does constitute a violation of the federal Communications Decency Act?" Kohl-Welles says. "I ended up with something on the order of 15 or more drafts that I floated, circulated, and got input on. And so where we ended up with something people were comfortable with."

The ACLU, which initially had concerns about Kohl-Welles' proposal, was neutral on the final legislation.

Ultimately, Kohl-Welles says, she would have preferred that the legislation go further---to bar companies like Backpage from running ads for trafficked children, period, as opposed to only barring them from doing so "knowingly." However, she thinks the bill will help crack down on the worst offenders. "I believe that we came up with the best language that we could."

VVM has indicated that it plans to challenge the law in court; its attorney, Liz McDougall (a former lawyer for Craigslist, which stopped running escort ads under threat of legal action), told the New York Times, "There’s going to have to be a challenge to it. Otherwise it would effectively shut down an enormous portion of the Internet that currently permits third-party content.”

Backpage has 70 percent of the market for online prostitution ads; the company earns more than $22 million a year from such ads.
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