Teen Sex Trafficking Victims Gain Victory in Legal Action Against Facebook

(AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

A recent ruling in a lawsuit against Facebook may have established a milestone in the effort to hold social media companies accountable for illicit content and sex trafficking on their platforms. On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Facebook can be held liable for the conduct of sex traffickers who use its social media site to prey on children.

The Houston Chronicle reported:

The ruling came in a trio of Houston civil actions involving teenage trafficking victims who met their abusive pimps through Facebook’s messaging functions. They sued the California-based social media juggernaut for negligence and product liability, saying that Facebook failed to warn about or attempt to prevent sex trafficking from taking place on its internet platforms. The suits also alleged that Facebook benefited from the sexual exploitation of trafficking victims.

The court decided that victims are allowed to move forward with a series of lawsuits against the social media alleging that it violated the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. Facebook’s attorneys argued, as they have in other cases, that it is protected from liability under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which mandates that online platforms cannot be held liable for content shared on their sites.

However, the court did not accept this argument. They wrote:

We do not understand Section 230 to ‘create a lawless no-man’s-land on the Internet’ in which states are powerless to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking.

“Holding internet platforms accountable for the words or actions of their users is one thing, and the federal precedent uniformly dictates that Section 230 does not allow it,” the opinion continued. “Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”

The court also pointed out that Congress amended Section 230 to create the potential of civil liability for online platforms that violate state and federal human trafficking laws. Under the amended legislation, states are empowered to crack down on companies that knowingly or intentionally support human trafficking through action or inaction.

The lawsuits against Facebook were filed by three Houston women who were recruited by traffickers, when they were minors, using the company’s apps. The women were trafficked because of the use of the technology.

In court filings, the women explained that Facebook lent an air of false credibility to the offenders and that they provided “a point of first contact between sex traffickers and these children” and “an unrestricted platform to stalk, exploit, recruit, groom, and extort children into the sex trade.”

One of the victims was only 15 years old, when an acquaintance connected with her on Facebook in 2012. According to the justices, the adult had pictures on his profile of “scantily-clad young women in sexual positions.” The Chronicle noted:

She confided in him and he complimented her, offering her a modeling job. After they met in person, the trafficker posted photos of her in prostitution ads on Backpage, an online platform shuttered due to its promotion of human trafficking. The young woman said she was “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.”

One of the other plaintiffs was only 14 years old when a man reached out to her on Instagram in 2017. Instagram is owned by Facebook. He enticed her with “false promises of love and a better future.”

From the Chronicle:

She said the easy access to her through social media made it possible for the man to traffic her, using Instagram to advertise her as a prostitute and set up “dates,” during which she was raped numerous times. After the teen was rescued from his operation, traffickers kept using her profile to lure in other minors, according to the ruling. In this case the family says the girl’s mother reported what had happened to Facebook and the company never responded.

The third plaintiff, who was also 14 was recruited by a man who was about 30 years old in 2016.

“They exchanged messages for two years in what plaintiffs said was a calculated effort to ‘groom’ her and prepare her for sex-trafficking,” according to the Houston Chronicle. In 2018, the man persuaded the teenager to leave home to meet him. He took her to a motel and took pictures of her. The trafficker posted the images on Backpage ads and was raped by multiple men.

Annie McAdams, the lead attorney for the three women, touted the court’s decision as groundbreaking. It was the first case that Facebook lost its immunity argument.

“While we have a long road ahead, we are grateful that the Texas Supreme Court will allow these courageous trafficking survivors to have their day in court against Facebook,” the lawyer said, adding: “We believe trafficking survivors in Texas can expose and hold accountable businesses such as Facebook that benefit from these crimes of exploitation.”

A spokesperson for Facebook indicated that the organization is looking at possible next steps.

“Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook,” the official said. “We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it.”

The issue of human trafficking on social media platforms has become a more serious issue as awareness of the practice has increased. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and others have been under severe scrutiny for allowing – and sometimes even defending – individuals who share certain types of content on their platforms.

Twitter, in particular, is facing a lawsuit alleging that it refused to take down child porn videos — even after it was made aware of the content by the victims involved. The company is also attempting to use Section 230 to get the lawsuit dismissed.

The future of the lawsuit against Facebook is unclear. But one thing is evident: Big Tech is going to have to face a reckoning on this issue eventually.