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Online Free Speech Advocates Join Lawsuit Against Washington State

Sara Lerner
06/18/2012

An online free speech advocacy organization has joined in the lawsuit against Washington state over a new law. KUOW's Sara Lerner reports.

TRANSCRIPT

The law forces online companies to verify ages of people who are advertised on their websites. It's aimed at cracking down on the sex trafficking of minors. That is, underage girls being sold by pimps on online classifieds sites — specifically, Backpage.com. And Backpage.com sued the state over that law two weeks ago. Now the San Francisco–based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is joining the lawsuit.

EFF's Matt Zimmerman:

Zimmerman: "The Internet exists today because states can't pass laws like this."

EFF's legal complaint — just like Backpage.com's — argues that Washington state Senate Bill 6251 uses language that is vague and overbroad — and — is squarely in conflict with federal law. The new state law makes a publisher responsible if it directly or indirectly helps display advertisements for underage girls being sold for sex. EFF argues the law is impossible to enforce.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn was involved in passing the state law and in efforts to make Backpage.com do more to stop sex trafficking.

McGinn: "You know, we anticipated when we worked on passing the law through the legislature that there would be concerns raised both that the federal law pre–empted it, and that there may be free speech issues. You know, I understand they have concerns. At the same time, what we're talking about here is the advertising of children for sex."

Zimmerman: "Today we're talking about online sex trafficking ads. Tomorrow it could be a ban on defamation."

Again, EFF's Matt Zimmerman. He says this law would re–write fundamental rules about the Internet. Basically, a 1996 federal law protects online publishers from what third parties post on their sites. This state law would change that.

Zimmerman: "It leaves service providers in a very, very difficult position to try to figure out what is permissible speech and what is not. What we fear is sites faced with these kinds of costs are just going to shut forums down."

Zimmerman says if a law like this is passed, then, as an example, Facebook in the future might feel forced to check and approve every word posted on every user's page: likely, an impossible task. If the court allows the Electronic Frontier Foundation to join the lawsuit, the hearing over that complaint will be held on June 29.

I'm Sara Lerner, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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