A Sacramento judge issued a preliminary ruling throwing out pimping charges Wednesday against operators of Backpage.com, an international website that advertises brothel services that has been called the world’s top online brothel.
Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman based his tentative ruling on First Amendment free speech guarantees and asked both sides to submit briefs before he makes a final ruling Dec. 9, the Associated Press reported.
The defendants argued they had no “knowledge” of illegal ads despite the findings of a U.S. Senate investigation that showed Backpage edits the ads before they are posted, Ars Technica reported.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris had filed pimping and other charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer, 58, and former owners Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 69. The judge said Harris lacked the authority to bring those charges because the federal Communications Decency Act provides immunity to website operators for content posted by users.
"Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech in that Congress did not wish to hold liable online publishers for the action of publishing third-party speech and thus provided for both a foreclosure from prosecution and an affirmative defense at trial. Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit," Bowman wrote.
David Greene, civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said without the Communications Decency Act, platforms used for freely posting information could not exist.
Harris alleged more than 90 percent of Backpage’s revenue came from adult escort ads, many sporting nearly nude photos and using coded language to offer sex for money.
Ferrer was arrested in Houston Oct. 6 after a flight from Amsterdam. Larkin and Lacey are former owners of the New York alternative newspaper Village Voice.
Ferrer was the subject of a three-year criminal investigation by Texas and California authorities. The Senate last year issued a contempt citation to Ferrer for refusing to comply with a subpoena for documents in an investigation into online sex trafficking. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the subpoena.