Mary Mazzio Discusses Her Documentary on Child Sex Trafficking, the CDA, and Backpage
Mary Mazzio, attorney-turned-humanitarian documentarian, impassioned founder of 50 Eggs Films, and producer of such films as Underwater Dreams, The Apple Pushers, and Contrarian, spotlights another human rights issue — child sex trafficking — in her latest film, I Am Jane Doe.
Versed in asking tough questions, challenging the status quo, and provoking critical thought, the award-winning filmmaker deals sensitively with this difficult issue, as well as with the publicized and ongoing controversy over Backpage.com. Reminiscent of the movie Spotlight, though with real-life attorneys, investigators, judges, victims and their families, I Am Jane Doe is filmed with the heart and tenacity of a human rights lawyer.
I Am Jane Doe dispels the assumption that child sex trafficking happens only in poor, foreign countries. It reveals a scope and depth of problem that was surprising even to veteran lawyer Mazzio. There are 1.6 million homeless and runaway children in America at any given time, and according to figures from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a key player in the film, one in six of the 18,500 children reported missing in 2016 alone were likely victims of sex trafficking. FBI estimates place the number of sex trafficking victims in the millions, mostly females and children enslaved for commercial sex, coming from every community across the US. What’s more, purchasers of children for sex span the socioeconomic, national, ethnic, and cultural spectrum.
Narrated by Jessica Chastain who explains that “sex trafficking” is a polite term for repeated rape for payment to pimps, I Am Jane Doe follows the lives of three American girls sex trafficked through the website Backpage.com. Together with their families and attorneys, they sue Backpage.com for complicity in and profiteering from the sale of minors for sex.
Lawsuits against Backpage.com, including pimping and money laundering charges filed by California Senator Kamala Harris, have failed in the past because Backpage (and other third-party host sites) are protected from liability under the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230. A consequential point in the film is that the CDA’s Section 230 and First Amendment are arguments for Backpage’s innocence.
The case against Backpage, like Craigslist before it, is closely watched in Silicon Valley because user-generated content sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google count on the CDA’s Section 230 to shield them from liability over content posted by online advertisers.
Another vital point brought out in the film is pop culture’s inaccurate and fictional characterization of sex trafficking and forced prostitution, further calling Backpage’s position into question. New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has said that society was willing to condemn the Catholic Church and Penn State for tolerating child sexual abuse, but that we essentially permit Backpage.com and other sites to sell children for sex. To this point, I Am Jane Doe ultimately wrestles with what’s permissible by law versus what’s right for humanity. Not for the fainthearted, this fast-paced, riveting documentary opens this month in major cities nationwide.
MISCHA GERACOULIS: How were you introduced to the subject matter you discuss in I Am Jane Doe, and what compelled you to make the film
MARY MAZZIO: I read an article in 2014 about Jane Does 1, 2, and 3 [the three underage girls featured in the film] in Boston, suing for damages caused by sex trafficking [of children] in the Escort Ads section of Backpage.com [formerly the Adult Classifieds section of the Village Voice]. When I found out that Ropes & Gray (known for representing tech, among other big industries) had jumped in on this case on behalf of the children, I realized that the case against Backpage.com was getting into a rather novel legal area. The original intent of the film was to focus on the lawyers and the legal dilemma. But then I met the girls and their mothers, and it became their story, their journey. I got out of the way as much as possible for them to tell their stories.
Who are the girls and the other players in the case?
I met the children, victims of child sex trafficking, and their mothers, who were filing suit. Each mother was like an Erin Brockovich or a Karen Silkwood. And the girls are so brave too, as their participation in the film (and lawsuit) risks unveiling their identities. The mothers and their daughters filed suit against Backpage.com to determine to what degree Backpage was responsible for a portion of the harm caused to their daughters. The pimps were responsible for much of the harm, but the goal was to determine the extent of Backpage’s participation in this crime.
While supporters of Backpage have argued that government pressure, censorship, and free speech violations have forced Backpage to close down its Adult section, anti-trafficking advocates have determined that most of the ads have migrated to Backpage’s Dating section. [This] means that the “shuttering” of the Escorts section was done with a public relations flourish, and without real meaning.
Backpage may have avoided much of this scrutiny in the first place and continued to operate under the radar had they made more of an effort to eradicate the sale of children (as anti-trafficking advocates had requested), and had they responded to the concerns of the mothers of trafficked children with more compassion. To illuminate this point: one of the mothers singlehandedly rescued her daughter off of Backpage. But even after her daughter was back home, the mother continued to see her daughter advertised on Backpage. She repeatedly called Backpage to ask them to remove the ads. Backpage refused, stating that the mother might actually be a “competitor,” and refused to take down the ads for months. This incensed her, and drove her to find out if Backpage was complicit with the pimps doing business on the site, which essentially is why they filed suit in 2010. This same issue (refusal to remove a minor’s photo from the site) drove one of the Jane Doe mothers in Boston to file suit.
In the case of the girl in Seattle [in the film], neither she nor her mother had thought of filing suit until a Seattle Weekly, (a Village Voice newspaper), reporter approached the mother in Seattle during her daughter’s pimp’s trial. The reporter asked to speak with her daughter, and the mother declined, explaining that her daughter had been missing for six months, was completely traumatized, and not prepared to speak. The reporter then ducked out and ambushed the daughter went she went to the restroom. When the mother later found out that the Village Voice owned Backpage.com and that the reporter was from the Village Voice, she decided to file suit against Backpage.
Ironically, Backpage could have settled these cases quietly. But they didn’t, likely because they [believed themselves to be] fully immunized by Section 230. Thus began the evolution of the litigation with Backpage. The girls were coming up against all sorts of impediments to their case, which eventually triggered the attention of the Senate, which then initiated the Senate investigations. So off we went into the story [in the film].
In terms of the other players in the case who are responsible for institutionalizing the online advertising of children, they are the federal judges, special interest groups, and sites like Backpage.com.
What are the claims against Backpage.com?
The main claims include Backpage’s alleged participation in and profit from child sex trafficking, which is a federal crime, and that it coaches its online adult ad posters in verbiage to avoid so as to stay under the legal radar. For example, if someone placed a sex ad and entered an age of 16, the ad would not post. Instead, a message would pop up as follows: “OOPS. Must be at least age 18.” Another claim is that Backpage perpetrated a false impression of cooperation with law enforcement officials and child advocates by hiring Liz McDougall as General Counsel and human moderators to review online ads.
After a series of meetings between Backpage and NCMEC,Yiota Souras, Senior Vice President, General Counsel for NCMEC, became skeptical of the assertion of Backpage’s attorney, Liz McDougall, that it was truly fighting human trafficking. Subsequently, talks between Backpage and NCMEC stalled.
Given this information, how does Backpage respond to the NCMEC’s claims that a majority of reports they receive through their “CyberTipline” regarding possible child sex trafficking involves Backpage.com?
Backpage has invoked the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to avoid any liability for third-party content, and has, to date, won nearly all of the Jane Doe cases on this basis.
Backpage also counters with other claims, such as to say that it cooperates with law enforcement. However, many law enforcement officials have openly challenged this claim, such as Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Thomas Dart who’s featured in the film. When we asked him how much online crime law enforcement is able to deal with, his response was that they could only handle a small fraction due to the sheer volume [of online crime], and that 99% of the crime happening on Backpage could not be addressed due to the lack of law enforcement resources.
One of the problems is that technology has outpaced the legal system. Some of these outdated laws need to be brought into the 21st century. Old media, incidentally, doesn’t have the benefit of Section 230 protection. So, to what extent are the tech companies responsible for online harm? Is this the cost of online business? Or might it be plausible to implement algorithms to track human trafficking?
Sex trafficking, as explained in your film, is profit-driven. Drugs, for example, can be sold once for single use; but one person can be sold over and over. According to statistics in the film, Backpage.com is the largest online classified site in the US, and holds 80 percent of the market for online sex ads. Since 2010 when Craigslist got out of the “adult services” ad business, Backpage has dominated the marketplace. In 2015, Backpage.com’s revenue reportedly was $153.8 million, up from $71 million in 2012. Also in 2015, courts in Seattle decided that Backpage.com was not protected by Section 230 if it helped to create child sex ads (by coaching the pimps), and that case is proceeding to trial.
Senate investigations in 2015 traced online child sex trafficking to Backpage.com. And yet every lawsuit filed against Backpage by a trafficked minor has been dismissed because of the CDA Section 230 provisions. What do the victims and their families want?
This is not a slam-dunk legal issue. Section 230 is a mechanism to protect industry from the cost of litigating claims based on third-party postings. Because of Section 230, online operators claim no responsibility for online harm. The Jane Does and their mothers — who are so courageous, particularly risking exposure of their identities — have unanimously said that they don’t want this to happen to other kids. The suits and the film are a means for channeling their grief and anguish, of amplifying their voices on this online crime, and on behalf of other Jane Doe children.
Free speech and internet advocates take the position that child trafficking is collateral damage. It happens as a side effect of the freedoms guaranteed to internet ad host sites. The investigation into Backpage is one of criminal activity though, not First Amendment violations.
I want to make it clear that I am a free speech advocate, and am all in favor of robust online freedom. I’m not suggesting that these are easily solved problems.
Section 230 is a mechanism to avoid lawsuits, and was enacted 20 years ago when online message boards had no real way of monitoring content. Today, that’s no longer the case; there are data mining tools available to deal with enormous amounts of data.
Section 230 allowed for a nascent industry — the internet — to grow and flourish without the cost of litigation, especially frivolous suits based on defamation. It was also enacted without anticipation of potential online harm. To now suggest that Congress intended Section 230 to protect online operators from alleged involvement in criminal activity makes no sense.
What about the claims posited that online third-party content sites like Backpage.com provide a safe platform for adult sex workers, and that closing such sites puts sex workers at risk?
This film has nothing to do with the adult world of sex trade. We are only talking about the sale of children. What consensual adults do is none of our business.
Where do things stand now?
In short, sex trafficking of children is a basic human rights violation that’s gone largely unaddressed, and it’s happening right under our noses. We have outdated laws that are unable to keep up with technology, and Backpage is protected by federal judges expanding the protection of Section 230 to include alleged criminal activity; an interpretation that is advocated by special interest groups backed by major tech companies in Silicon Valley. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have actively been supporting Backpage and trying to defeat the claims of the Jane Does.
On January 9th of this year, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations published its report of findings accusing Backpage of moderating ads suspected of child sex trafficking, and disguising illegal activity by proactively sanitizing online ad content.
On January 10th, Backpage.com executives appeared for a congressional hearing to face allegations that Backpage.com has profited from sex trafficking, and they refused to testify, citing their rights against self-incrimination. Preemptively, Backpage closed down their adult ads site on January 9th, the day before the hearing, and much of the child sex trafficking ads moved over to their dating section. Their international companion sites remain fully operational.
Given the interpretation of federal judges, particularly in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Doe v. Backpage (which effectively stated that even if Backpage participated in a federal crime, Section 230 protected it from liability), Congress must act to clarify that Section 230 cannot shield a company from allegations of criminal conduct.
Personally, I feel humbled to have been able to work with these children, that they felt comfortable enough to trust me to convey their stories. I am lucky to have met them, and I’d like to think that I’m a better person for knowing them.
This interview was first published on Los Angeles Review of Books