May 19, 2017

Washington Post: A movie about online sex-trafficking might actually get laws changed

Original Post: Washington Post

It’s tough getting a consensus on anything these days, but child sex abuse and human trafficking are generally considered indefensible crimes. So who’s defending them?

According to “I Am Jane Doe,” that would be Google. And Microsoft. And Facebook. And Yahoo.

Directed by Mary Mazzio (“Lemonade Stories,” “Underwater Dreams”) and coming to Netflix May 26 after a theatrical run earlier this year, the documentary advocates for victims of online trafficking while taking principal aim at the classified-ad website Backpage.com, a notorious venue for sex ads and transactions, many involving children. In its indictment of Backpage.com and the tech companies that are indirectly supporting the website, the film may also give a public relations boost to members of Congress working to tighten laws surrounding Internet liability. In doing so, “I Am Jane Doe” may be the rare social-issue documentary that has an effect on a social issue.

According to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, online service providers cannot be held liable for third-party content. But that means if someone sells a 13-year-old on its pages, Backpage says, it isn’t responsible. And so far, court after court has agreed — to the relief of First Amendment absolutists, and the Silicon Valley companies mentioned above, which support, financially, organizations defending Backpage’s position.

As the film explains — through the voices of victims, their mothers, their advocates, and narrator Jessica Chastain — neither side is letting up.

Backpage was once part of Village Voice Media and is now owned by a Dutch firm, although founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin and chief executive Carl Ferrer have been named in the suits. “I Am Jane Doe” picks up the Backpage saga in 2010 with lawsuits filed by girls who were trafficked on its pages, and continues through a Senate subcommittee investigation led by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in January, as well as criminal charges of pimping and money laundering brought by then-California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, now a Democratic senator. It also focuses on the effort that has thus far made the most headway — a civil suit that continues in Washington state, piloted by lawyer Erik Bauer. Backpage will try to get that case dismissed during a summary judgment hearing Wednesday. A jury trial is scheduled for Oct. 9.

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National Center on Sexual Exploitation

Founded in 1962, National Center on Sexual Exploitation is the leading national organization opposing pornography by highlighting the links to sex trafficking, violence against women, child abuse, addiction and more. The organization changed its name from Morality In Media to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation early in 2015 to better describe the organization’s scope and mission, which is to expose the seamless connection between all forms of sexual exploitation.

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