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Online sex trafficking? Not if the Senate has its way

The state Senate zeroes in on legislation targeting Internet sex trafficking again. This time with better aim.
Backpage.com has faced criticism over underage sex listings.

Backpage.com has faced criticism over underage sex listings.

The Washington Senate took its second shot Monday to penalize Internet advertising for sex with minors, hoping the the bill will clear a federal hurdle that tripped up a 2012 state law.

The senate passed 49-0 a bill (SB 5488) by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, to levy an extra $5,000 fine against a person convicted of crimes relating to sex with a minor if the crime was completed using the Internet. 

"We want to do everything to send a message to child molesters, to pimps that our children are not for sale," Kohl-Welles said. 

"Human trafficking is another word for slavery," said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. "We know it happens in our state."

Last year, the Legislature passed a Kohl-Welles bill aimed at Backpage.com, whose national online advertising includes sex ads, some of which have been linked to underage prostitutes. Village Voice Media — until recently, the owner of Seattle Weekly — owns Backpage.com. Last September, it sold Seattle Weekly and its other alternative weeklies to a group of managers from Village Voice Media Holdings, who formed the Voice MediaGroup. The Weekly has since been sold again to Sound Publishing. 

In late 2012, a federal judge in Seattle struck down the new sex advertising law, agreeing with the arguments of the plaintiff, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF argued that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the Federal Communications Decency Act of 1996. Essentially, it targeted an online service provider — Backpage.com — rather than the people using the service. The Communications Decency Act provides immunity to online service providers, a plank that has survived similar challenges in New York and Pennsylvania.

This time around, Kohl-Welles' bill is targeting the criminals.

The Senate also passed 49-0 another human trafficking bill Monday introduced by Padden (SB 5669) that clarified vague language in current human trafficking laws and would allow victims 14-years-old and younger to testify in trial without the defendants and juries in the same room. 

Both bills will move next to the Washington House for a vote.

 

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


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