Film

‘I Am Jane Doe’ Finds Urgent Drama in the Legal Battles Against Backpage.com

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I Am Jane Doe is a powerful documentary saga of mothers who, after discovering ads for sex with their school-age daughters on the website backpage.com, sued the online-classifieds company for damages and lobbied Congress to change the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230. That’s the portion of 1996’s telecommunications law that protects internet services like Facebook from sharing blame for users’ alleged criminality.

Through serene photography and eloquent interviews (and despite Jessica Chastain’s somnolent narration), emotion permeates the legal-eagle story: A sole Western attorney, a gung-ho Chicago sheriff, and Boston blue chips all thread their arguments against Backpage through the narrow needles of Section 230’s liability immunities.

Time after time, Backpage prevails even as evidence piles up that its guidelines for users failed to stop pimps from advertising underage girls. The documentary is impressively up to date, incorporating a January Supreme Court decision to let stand one ruling against the plaintiffs and Backpage’s choice to shutter its sex-based ads. Lawyers and advocates attribute losses to judges’ ignorance. But the film doesn’t elucidate why Section 230 is considered sacrosanct. That law is widely credited with protecting freedom of expression and innovation for two decades. Without it, many proponents say, the internet would be overly restrained and dominated even more by corporate interests.

As the internet evolves, Section 230 is destined to change. That may happen, eventually, thanks to these legal teams as their cases continue — or, better yet, thoughtful congressional revision, which seems possible after the unanimous, bipartisan support on display. But details of how to square Section 230’s safeguards with the challenges revealed in this film remain elusive.

(Disclosure: In 2005 the Village Voice was purchased by the alternative newspaper conglomerate New Times Media, which also owned backpage.com. After the acquisition, New Times Media renamed itself Village Voice Media. The Village Voice newspaper was acquired by its current owner, Black Walnut Holdings, in 2015, and has no affiliation with backpage.com or its owners, nor does it accept advertising for sex.)

I Am Jane Doe

Directed by Mary Mazzio

50 Eggs Inc.

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