The Texas Supreme Court declared on Friday that Facebook is not a “lawless no-man’s land” and that it can be held accountable for the actions of those who use the platform to recruit and exploit children.
Since Facebook violated a provision of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which was passed in 2009, the justices concluded that victims of human trafficking can proceed with their cases.
The decision is the result of three civil lawsuits filed in Houston involving child trafficking victims who met their predators using Facebook’s messaging features. The plaintiffs sued Facebook for negligence and product liability, claiming that the social media company failed to warn about or try to prevent sex trafficking on its platforms.
Facebook allegedly profited from the sexual exploitation of human trafficking victims, according to the lawsuits.
Facebook’s lawyers contended that the company is immune from responsibility under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which states that what users say or write on the internet is not the same as what a publisher says or writes.
In a statement, a Facebook representative said the firm is reviewing its next measures.
“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 spokesperson said.
“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 justices stated in their majority opinion.
“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.”
Three Houston women filed the cases, alleging that they were recruited as teenagers through Facebook apps and were trafficked as a result of those ties, giving predators “a point of first contact between sex traffickers and these children.”
According to the Human Trafficking Institute, Facebook accounted for the bulk of online recruitment in active sex trafficking cases in the United States in 2020. The claims were made in the organization’s 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report.
“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,” Human Trafficking Institute CEO Victor Boutros said earlier this month. “Facebook overwhelmingly is used by traffickers to recruit victims in active sex trafficking cases.”
One plaintiff said she was 15 when she chatted with a common friend’s buddy on Facebook in 2012. She claimed that when the man gave her a modeling job, he took images of her and placed them on Backpage, an online portal that was shut down in 2018 for promoting human trafficking. “I was raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking,” the woman alleged.
The second complainant claimed she was 14 years old when she was contacted on Instagram, a Facebook-owned platform. T the man enticed her with “false promises of love and a better future,” then used Instagram to advertise her as a prostitute and set up “dates,” the woman alleged. The woman also claimed she had been raped several times and that when her mother told Facebook about it, the company “never responded.”
In 2016, a male she didn’t know sent her an Instagram friend request when she was 14 years old, said the third complainant. They had been exchanging messages for two years when the man allegedly requested her to leave her house and meet her in March 2018. According to court filings, the man allegedly photographed the teen in a motel room and put the photographs on Backpage.
Facebook’s attorneys argued that Congress used “very broad terms” to protect free speech, deter censorship through the prospect of lawsuits, and avoid inconsistent liability standards.
“When Congress decided to amend Section 230 to combat the scourge of online sex trafficking, it did so with a scalpel, not a hammer — carefully enumerating precisely the types of claims that would be exempt from Section 230,” argued Facebook’s attorneys in a September 2020 brief to the court. “The balance Congress struck is embodied in the language it used. Congress is free to alter that balance by amending that language. But this Court doesn’t sit as a super legislature to rewrite the statute under the guise of divining legislative ‘purpose.’
“But regardless of what plaintiffs contend Facebook should have done about that third-party content — prevent it, block it, remove it, edit it, flag it, or warn about it — the purported duty to take action that undergirds plaintiffs’ claims derives from (Facebook’s) role as a publisher, which is why these claims are prohibited by Section 230.”