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Court Rules Against Facebook, Sex Trafficking Lawsuits Can Move Forward

Published: June 29, 2021
In this photo illustration, a smart phone screen displays the logo of Facebook on a Facebook website background, on April 7, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (Image: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Decision opens path to holding social media giant accountable

On Friday, June 25, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that Facebook is not a “lawless no-man’s-land” and can be held liable for sex traffickers who utilize the social media platform to recruit and prey on child victims. 

The decision was handed down following three Houston civil actions by local teenage trafficking victims who met their abusers through Facebook’s messaging apps and have accused the tech giant of being negligent by failing to keep sex traffickers off its platform.

“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.” reported the Houston Chronicle

The lawsuits were filed by three Houston area women who were recruited as teens through Facebook and were trafficked as a result of their interactions on the social media platform. 

The lawsuits allege that Facebook allowed “an unrestricted platform to stalk, exploit, recruit, groom, and extort children into the sex trade.”

The victims allege that Facebook may have even profited off their exploitation. 

The decision means that victims can now move forward with lawsuits on the grounds that Facebook is in violation of a provision of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code passed in 2009. 

Facebook fires back

In their defense, lawyers for Facebook are citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Essentially, the argument tabled by Facebook is that it cannot be held liable for the actions of users of its platform but the Texas Supreme Court interpreted it differently. 

“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,” the Houston Chronicle reported. 

The courts stated that “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,” adding that, “holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”

Section 230 has recently been amended to allow the possibility of civil liability for websites and social media platforms — like Facebook and Twitter — that violate state and federal human-trafficking laws. Under the amended law, states now have a mechanism to protect residents from web based companies that intentionally or knowingly allow human traffickers to operate either through its action or inaction. 

A persistent problem

The decision comes after The Human Trafficking Institute (HTI) published a report stating that, in 2020, the majority of online recruitment in sex trafficking cases, in the U.S., was on Facebook.  

The report discovered that victims of forced labor and sex trafficking are rarely kidnapped by strangers off the streets. Instead, the internet is a predator’s favored hunting grounds. 

Human Trafficking Institute CEO Victor Boutros told CBSN Wednesday, “the internet has become the dominant tool that traffickers use to recruit victims, and they often recruit them on a number of very common social networking websites,” adding that “Facebook overwhelmingly is used by traffickers to recruit victims in active sex trafficking cases.”

The report indicates that approximately 94 percent of victims of sex trafficking are female, girl victims accounted for 50 percent of the total. 

A spokesperson from Facebook told Business Insider that, “Sex trafficking and child exploitation are abhorrent and we don’t allow them on Facebook. We have policies and technology to prevent these types of abuses and take down any content that violates our rules. We also work with safety groups, anti-trafficking organizations and other technology companies to address this and we report all apparent instances of child sexual exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”