The Texas Supreme Court will allow three human trafficking victims to move forward in litigation against Facebook that alleges the platform enabled their abusers to groom them into a life of prostitution.
In a 6-0 ruling, with two justices not participating, Justice Jimmy Blacklock rejected Facebook’s plea for mandamus relief, based on arguments that the federal Communications Decency Act said the social media giant couldn’t face liability for things that its users published or said on its platform.
“It was time for the court to adjust the way it looks at how the internet is regulated,” said plaintiffs attorney Annie McAdams, partner in Annie McAdams PC in Houston. “I think it will have a profound influence. This is the first major decision that puts a crack in absolute immunity for internet companies.”
A Facebook spokesman emailed a comment from the company that said it was reviewing the high court’s ruling.
“We’re reviewing the decision and considering potential next steps. Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook. We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it,” the statement said.
The ruling said the plaintiffs’ claims for statutory human trafficking can proceed, but the high court dismissed common-law claims for negligence, gross negligence, negligent undertaking and products liability.
Blacklock wrote in the ruling in In re Facebook that the Communications Decency Act doesn’t create a “lawless no-man’s land on the internet” that strikes a state’s power “to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking.”
Although the high court agreed that the federal statute wouldn’t enable the plaintiffs to hold Facebook accountable for its users’ comments, it decided this case poses a different situation.
“Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing,” said the opinion. “This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”
See here for the opinion, and here for all the filings related to the case. Note that the question here was whether or not the victims could sue Facebook, not whether they won their suit. At this point, everything goes back to the district court, where an actual trial can begin on the merits of the case. It will likely be some number of years before there is a final result.
I had not followed this case at all and wasn’t aware of it until I saw these stories. The Chron provides some background.
The lawsuits were brought by three Houston women recruited as teens through Facebook apps and trafficked as a result of those online connections. The young women said in court filings that the social media giant cloaked traffickers with credibility and 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 young woman who sued was 15 when a friend of a mutual friend reached out to her on Facebook in 2012. The adult who began messaging her had images on his profile of “scantily-clad young women in sexual positions” with money stuffed in their mouths and “other deeply troubling content,” the justices wrote. 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.”
Another plaintiff was 14 in 2017 when a man contacted her on Instagram, another Facebook property. The pimp in this instance lured her with “false promises of love and a better future.” 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 girl who sued identified herself as being 14 on Instagram in 2016. A man of about 30 whom she didn’t know sent her a friend request on Instagram. They exchanged messages for two years in what plaintiffs said was a calculated effort to “groom” her and prepare her for sex-trafficking. In March 2018, the man asked the teen to leave home and meet him. He brought the girl to a motel, photographed her and posted images in Backpage ads, according to the opinion. The johns who responded to the post raped her.
Nasty stuff. This is a big ruling, but it is far from the end of the line, and there will be plenty of opportunity for Facebook to prevail in other ways as we proceed. The HuffPost has more.