Washington State Drops Defense of Unconstitutional Sex Trafficking Law
San Francisco - Today, Washington state officials announced that they have dropped their defense of a law aimed at combatting online sex trafficking ads by targeting Internet service providers, conceding that the statute was unconstitutional and violated federal law. After a challenge by the Internet Archive and Backpage.com, a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the law will officially go into effect when the federal district court approves the stipulations and proposed orders filed today.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and co-counsel Venkat Balasubramani represented the Internet Archive in the federal lawsuit that struck down SB 6251, a law passed by the Washington legislature in 2012 despite its obvious potential to curtail legitimate speech. For example, the vague and overbroad statute threatened to impose felony liability not only on those directly engaged in illegal acts but also on those who "indirectly" caused to be "disseminated" any "implicit" offers for commercial sex acts. That could potentially affect services that merely provide access to information, like web hosts, ISPs, or online libraries, impeding their ability to operate. Moreover, the statute directly conflicted with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230), a federal law that bars states from holding online service providers responsible for the acts of their users.
"Threatening to throw service providers in jail for what their users say or do is misguided, incredibly harmful to online free expression generally, and violates federal law," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "We are grateful that the state of Washington has agreed that this statute cannot and will not be enforced against the Internet Archive or anyone else."
The Internet Archive and Backpage.com first filed separate challenges to SB 6251 in June, seeking to block both the state attorney general and county prosecutors from enforcing the statute. In July, federal district court judge Ricardo Martinez granted a preliminary injunction, agreeing that the statute likely violated the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments as well as conflicted with CDA 230. When approved, today's stipulations and orders will convert the preliminary injunction into a permanent one, rendering the statute unenforceable against anyone.
"The protection offered by CDA 230 has allowed YouTube to host user-uploaded videos, Craigslist to host classified ads, Facebook and Twitter to offer social networking, and the Internet Archive to offer billions of archived webpages documenting the evolution of the Internet," said EFF Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo. "While everyone involved in this case agrees with the goal of SB 6251, overbroad laws that create potential liability for general purpose Internet service providers and forums is not the right way to hold sex traffickers accountable."
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For more on CDA 230:
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation