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After Washington Bill Gets Slammed, Lawmakers Vow To Change Federal Act

Sara Lerner

Online classifieds site won an injunction last week stopping a Washington state child sex trafficking law from taking effect. It would have held online publishers responsible if a juvenile is sold for sex through their websites.

The federal judge slammed Washington state, citing the 1st, 5th, and 14th amendments, states' rights, and the federal Communications Decency Act.

As KUOW's Sara Lerner reports, Washington lawmakers aren't deterred. Some say now they want that federal law changed.


State Senator Jeanne Kohl–Welles got to the federal courthouse early for the mid–July hearing, before it filled up and dozens were forced to stand in the back.

Kohl–Welles was attentive. She helped write the state child sex trafficking law in question. She says she tried to make sure it fit guidelines under constitutional law and didn't go against the federal Communications Decency Act.

The law would have held websites like accountable in case pimps post ads for young girls on their sites. It was a way to get Backpage to do more to verify the age of girls whose ads are posted.

But according to US Judge Ricardo Martinez's decision, it failed.

In upholding the federal CDA, he says online publishers cannot be held responsible for what third–party users post on their site. For example, Facebook and YouTube aren't responsible if someone says something illegal on their sites, or if in a chat room, an illegal exchange is made.

Now, Kohl–Welles joins several national human trafficking organizations in calling for the CDA to be changed. She's a Democrat and says she's regularly on the side of free speech issues.

Kohl–Welles: "I'm a civil libertarian and I have voted against every bill that has come up in Legislature, during the entire time I've been in the Legislature, that has to do with censorship. But I see this very differently."

Kohl–Welles admits that as a state Senator, she can't do much to change federal law. But she can encourage the Washington delegation to change it.

Kohl–Welles: "Clearly this needs to be amended. The federal Communications Decency Act was enacted in 1996. We've had a huge change in operations and far reaches of the Internet. The whole culture is changed around the Internet."

The Internet is now where girls are often bought and sold. Kohl–Welles says that's why old laws need to be reconsidered.

Matt Zimmerman is an attorney who argued alongside Backpage at the hearing. But he represents a different client: the Internet Archive. They joined Backpage in the lawsuit against Washington in order to protect their efforts to archive the entire Internet on their website, The Wayback Machine.

Zimmerman says states can't write laws that would go against the federal act. He, like Kohl–Welles, says the Internet has evolved. In his view, that's all the more reason you can't change the CDA.

He says now that's how people communicate with each other. It's the 21st century equivalent of going after the phone company. You can't hold the phone company responsible for what people say on the phone, or the post office responsible for what people write in their letters.

Zimmerman: "It would be kind of an absurd strategy to go after the post office and the phone company. Similarly it's a bad idea to change the law to somehow make people who create websites or disseminate content like Internet service providers, to make them liable. It's just a bad idea."

Kohl–Welles has company. State Senator Jerome Delvin has also sponsored several state bills against human trafficking. He says he, too, will now work towards changing the federal Communications Decency Act. Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna also says Congress should consider changing the CDA.

At the end of the federal hearing, Judge Martinez nodded to the crowded courtroom and said this case is a fascinating one for legal geeks but that doesn't negate the very real problem of child trafficking.

Meanwhile, Seattle police say they continue to find underage girls on And Backpage says they're diligently trying to find ways to stop it.

I'm Sara Lerner, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW