On March 14, 2016, Judge Selya, writing for a unanimous bench on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, affirmed the District Court of Massachusetts’ decision dismissing the complaint filed by three victims of child sex trafficking against online forum Backpage.com. Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Souter serves as a judge by designation.
The three anonymous plaintiffs, victims of child sex trafficking, alleged that they were molested and repeatedly raped after being advertised as sexual wares on Backpage.com. They sued Backpage.com, a website that hosts online classified adds, alleging that it had violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (“TVPRA”), 18 U.S.C. §1595, which applies to anyone that “knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value from participation in a venture which that person knew or should have known has engaged in an act in violation of this chapter.” The defendant invoked Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”), which shields online service providers from liability for material posted by users of the site, and allows website operators to engage in blocking and screening of third-party content free from liability for such good-faith efforts. 47 U.S.C. §230. In addition, the CDA includes an immunity clause that exempts enforcement of a federal criminal statute, which plaintiffs argued applicable in a civil case such as this one.