Sex trafficking victims can sue Facebook for damages, Texas court rules

Sex trafficking victims can sue Facebook for damages, Texas court rules

By Thomas Catenacci

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that sex trafficking victims may proceed with their lawsuits alleging Facebook violated state anti-trafficking laws.

While social media platforms like Facebook cannot be held responsible for everything published on their platform, they may be sued for knowingly allowing criminal activity to occur, according to the decision issued Friday afternoon. The high court didn’t rule on whether Facebook was guilty of any of the trafficking victims’ allegations, but said they may pursue those claims in court.

“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,” wrote Justice James Blacklock who authored the court’s opinion.

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“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,” he continued. “Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing.”

The victims have argued that Facebook provided an “unrestricted platform” for criminals to lure children into the sex trade, according to a press release from their lawyers. The Big Tech platform is not only the first point of contact between many sex traffickers and their victims, but it gives criminal operations apparent credibility, their lawsuits alleged.

They further accused Facebook of violating Texas state law that criminalizes knowingly benefitting from sex trafficking.

“Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation in a statement. “We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it.”

The spokesperson added that the company is reviewing the decision and mulling potential next steps.

“Our clients have fought for over two years for the chance to bring their case,” Annie McAdams, one of the lawyers representing the sex trafficking victims, said in a statement Friday. “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.”

“We believe trafficking survivors in Texas can expose and hold accountable businesses such as Facebook that benefit from these crimes of exploitation,” McAdams said.

But TechFreedom, a think tank that focuses on technology issues, condemned the court’s ruling Friday. The group accused the court of misinterpreting federal communications statutes.

“This decision, based on a tortured and unwarranted reading of the law, undermines that overarching goal,” TechFreedom Free Speech Counsel Ari Cohn said in a statement. “State courts must not ignore the unambiguous text of the law in order to reach a preferred outcome based on what they think the law should be.”

Section 230, a provision of the federal Communication Decency Act of 1996, protects online platforms from being held responsible for the actions of users who may commit crimes using their software, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Proponents of the law argue it fosters free-ranging discussions and speech on popular websites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

But more than 45 million photos documenting child sexual abuse were posted on popular social media platforms in 2018, according to a 2019 New York Times report. In addition, advocacy groups have warned that sex slavery runs rampant on Facebook.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, though, said that his company works harder than any of its competitors to root out child exploitation during a 2019 House hearing. Zuckerberg also stated that he was committed to working with law enforcement to further crack down on people who use Facebook to commit crimes.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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