By Nicole Neroulias
SEATTLE, July 20 (Reuters) - A U.S. district judge heard arguments on Friday on whether to block a tough Washington state law requiring advertising sites to verify the age of people depicted in sex ads following a challenge by Backpage.com.
The law, passed unanimously by Washington lawmakers in February, makes it a felony to knowingly publish ads featuring children or teens under age 18. Such actions would be punishable by up to five years in prison and $10,000 fine per violation.
"Our state is a hotbed for the recruitment, transportation and sale of human beings," said Dan Sytman, spokesman for the state attorney general's office. "That awareness, and a strong desire to protect kids from being exploited, spurred action."
Backpage.com, which publishes most of the adult-services Internet ads in the United States, challenged the law, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution, is too broad, vague and unenforceable, and would make it harder for police to investigate sex crimes by driving underage prostitution underground.
"It's an ill-conceived and misguided law that is likely to lead to perverse results," Backpage.com's attorney James C. Grant said. "It could actually lead to an increase in sex trafficking, not a decrease."
District Judge Ricardo Martinez temporarily blocked the law's enforcement last month, and will decide next week whether to issue a preliminary injunction.
A hearing on a similar law in Tennessee is due in August. Both cases are being watched closely by other states considering similar legislation, including New York and New Jersey.
"Many states would like to do more to protect kids from being sold for sex online," Sytman said.
Backpage.com is part of Village Voice Media, which also owns The Seattle Weekly, L.A. Weekly and Village Voice. The Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, has joined its lawsuit, although state officials insist the law doesn't apply to automated archives, or to sites like Facebook and Twitter that may unknowingly host ads for underage prostitutes.
Online prostitution advertising generated at least $3.1 million in revenue in February, on five U.S. websites, an increase of 9.8 percent from a year earlier, according to interactive media and classified advertising consultant AIM Group. Nearly 80 percent of the revenue was attributed to Backpage.com, AIM said in a report published March 22. (Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)