By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Backpage.com, an online classified advertising site, which officials contend promotes sex trafficking, was hit on Tuesday with U.S. lawsuits saying it hid the crime by rewriting ads offering children for commercial sex.
Backpage filters out explicit words, supplies code phrases and helps conceal trafficking ads from law enforcement, according to the lawsuits filed by two anti-trafficking groups and an unidentified woman who said she was raped as a result of a Backpage ad.
Some 1.5 million people in the United States are victims of trafficking, most commonly for sexual exploitation, according to the lawsuits filed in Florida and Arizona on behalf of Florida Abolitionist and the Sojourner Center, an Arizona group that assists trafficking and domestic violence survivors.
Most sex trafficking victims are children, and most are advertised or sold online, according to a U.S. Senate subcommittee report released last month that accused Backpage of editing posts to remove evidence of child sex trafficking.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has said more than 70 percent of the reports it gets of trafficked children involve Backpage, based in Dallas, Texas.
According to the lawsuits, traffickers can pay extra for Backpage to write and design their ads, making them effective and less likely to draw legal attention.
"Backpage helped create ads offering children and others for commercial sex in violation of numerous state and federal statutes," said David Boies, chairman of the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner which filed the lawsuits with Legal Momentum - The Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Carol Robles-Román, president of Legal Momentum, described the trafficking of teenage girls as a major human rights violation.
"Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil," she said.
An attorney for Backpage said she had not seen the lawsuits and could not comment.
The lawsuits follow previous cases filed last month, all challenging a law that shields online publishers from liability for content on their sites.
The cases draw on the Senate subcommittee report that found Backpage removed words that indicated a person being advertised was a child, such as "school girl" and "innocent". Backpage would then post the sanitized ad, the report said.
In previous cases accusing Backpage of promoting trafficking, the website has successfully argued that it is merely hosting content, not creating it.
Backpage has said it is shielded by a federal law that protects free speech on the internet.
According to the Senate report, Backpage's adult services section carries more than 200 times more ads than does its jobs section and gets 500 times more page views.
Backpage has "made millions of dollars in profits each year from websites that they designed and intended to be used, and that they knew were being used, for illegal sex trafficking, including of children," said the Florida lawsuit.
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)