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Review

Child exploitation, free speech and net neutrality tangle in fervent documentary 'I Am Jane Doe'

Mary Mazzio’s documentary “I Am Jane Doe” is a whirlwind primer on the case of Backpage, a classified ads website with a serious problem: the exploitation and trafficking of minors conducted in the escorting and adult section of the site.

Backpage is now the center of a legal drama that has proceeded all the way to the Senate floor, and “I Am Jane Doe” attempts to elucidate the dizzying legal proceedings alongside the stories of trafficking victims, including two known as M.A. and J.S., who ultimately sued Backpage for culpability in their trafficking.

Their stories are horrifying and sad, and offer a glimpse into the stark reality of online child sex trafficking, a context that becomes obfuscated in the courtroom. The Communications Decency Act and the First Amendment are repeatedly cited by lawyers for Backpage, asserting that the freedom of the Internet should be preserved and that websites are not liable for the ads posted by third parties. 

It’s a conundrum wherein the inherently evil act of child exploitation and abuse becomes entangled in issues of free speech and net neutrality.

Mazzio intersperses the personal stories with the techno-legal thriller that races along a timeline up to January of 2017 and narration from producer Jessica Chastain. Each moment is resonant, but the intimate reflections halt the momentum, and the legal dramas interfere with the emotional impact.

It’s an overwhelming, and sometimes disorganized firehose of information. Mazzio doesn’t include any advocates for Internet freedom, which feels like a missed opportunity to fully illustrate the tensions and reasons why the court cases have stalled. Ultimately, however, “I Am Jane Doe” is a powerful call to action to protect children over profit.

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‘I Am Jane Doe’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing AMC Universal CityWalk

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