The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

August 7, 2013

States take aim at sex-ad websites, but run into resistance

ORLANDO, Fla. — A two-word change proposed to one of the nation’s first online laws has triggered a battle between law enforcement and Internet libertarians.

On one side, top law enforcers for nearly every state are calling on Congress to change a federal act so state laws can be used against websites with ads from prostitutes and pimps.

On the other side, an Internet advocacy group, the American Civil Liberties Union and others are pushing back, saying the change would restrict free speech.

The fight centers on Backpage.com, a website that posts classified ads, and the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Nearly 50 attorneys general want to add just two words — “or state” — to the act, a change that would subject websites to state laws and, critics say, place websites under a crippling tangle of regulations.

Supporters, though, including the National Association of Attorneys General, said the change is needed because federal officials have failed to take a tough stand against websites used by sex traffickers and prostitutes.

“By updating federal law, we can give prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on those who use technology to exploit children,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who announced her support of the amendment last week.

Opponents of the change, including the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology and the ACLU, said “the proposed amendment would jeopardize the continued growth of the entire Internet industry and the free expression rights of Internet users everywhere.”

Advertising for prostitution and child-sex trafficking has flourished online thanks to websites such as Backpage, most attorneys general said in a letter to Congress.

Backpage — a website that allows paying users to post sex ads — is not the only website that criminals are using to promote prostitution, but it is the largest and the one most often used by law enforcement agencies to find offenders.

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