Facebook Liable for Human Trafficking Connections: Court Ruling

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Photo by Kayla Kern via Flickr.

The Texas State Supreme Court has ruled that Facebook cannot be considered a “lawless no-man’s land” and must be held liable for the conduct of individuals who use its communicative technology to recruit and prey, the Houston Chronicle reports. 

This is the first case to beat Facebook on its argument that it had immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The ruling follows a trio of Houston civil action lawsuits involving teenage trafficking survivors who detail meeting their abusive pimps through Facebook messenger. The survivors further argued that the California-based social media company was negligent, saying Facebook “failed to warn about or attempt to prevent sex trafficking from taking place on its internet platforms.” 

The survivors also allege that Facebook itself benefited from the sexual exploitation of trafficking victims, the Houston Chronicle details

Annie McAdams, a lead attorney for the three survivors, said it was a “groundbreaking decision,” she said.

“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,” McAdams said.

The Texas Supreme Court justices said the survivors can move forward with their lawsuit against the company on the grounds that Facebook isolated a provision of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, passed in 2009. 

On the contrary, Facebook lawyers vehemently argued that the company was shielded under a section of the federal Communications Decency Act — stating that what users write online is not the same as a “publisher” conveying the same message.

In other words, they tried to argue that Facebook is “immune” to these types of lawsuits, the Houston Chronicle explains.

The majority wrote, as quoted by the Houston Chronicle, “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 ruling opinion detailed. “Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”

In their ruling, the justices furthered that Congress recently amended Section 230 to add the possibility of civil liability for websites that violate state and federal human trafficking laws. 

In response, Facebook also says that they have “policies and technology” in place that prevent abuses of the platform, as well as content rules. To that end, advocates argue, it hasn’t been enough to stop grooming and child exploitation.

A Recruitment Platform

The majority of online recruitment in active modern-day sex trafficking cases in America last year took place on Facebook, according to the Human Trafficking Institute’s 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report. 

Photo by Stock Catalog via Flickr.

“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 told CBSN during a recent interview. “Facebook overwhelmingly is used by traffickers to recruit victims in active sex trafficking cases.”

Data from the last two decades included in the human trafficking report showed that 30 percent of all victims identified in federal sex trafficking cases since 2000 were recruited online, according to CBSN

This number has only grown as social media platforms have become more popular.

Last year, in America, 59 percent of online recruitment of identified victims in active sex trafficking cases took place on Facebook alone. The Federal Human Trafficking report also states that 65 percent of identified child sex trafficking victims recruited on social media were recruited through Facebook.

While Facebook poses a serious threat to juveniles and potential victims alike, many note that in the report, Instagram, a Facebook property, Snapchat, and WeChat were also frequently cited as social platforms that juveniles were approached on. 

The majority of victims in active sex trafficking cases in 2020 were targeted with a fraudulent job offer, the report notes, followed by feigned romance, CBSN details. 

This was also the case for the three girls involved in the Texas lawsuit.

Dark Messages, Inappropriate Ads, Lives Altered

The Houston Chronicle details that one of the young girls who sued Facebook was just 15 when a friend of a mutual friend reached out to her, messaging about a potential modeling job. The young lady saw that the adult had other images of “scantily-clad young women in sexual positions” on his profile. 

Despite this, she met with the man in person, where he took suggestive photos of her, and posted them in prostitution ads on Backpage, and online platform shut down due to its promotion of human trafficking ads. Because of this connection, the young woman was “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking,” the Houston Chronicle details. 

Another plating was 14 when in 2017, she details that an older man contacted her on Instagram spilling “false promises of love and a better future.” When the two got closer, she said he used Instagram’s paid advertisements to set her up as a prostitute and lure in other men with “dates” during which she was assaulted numerous times. 

Even after she was rescued from his operation, the traffickers used photos from her profile to lure other minors. The family of the survivor says they reached out to Facebook during the abuse, and the company never responded.

Lastly, the Houston Chronicle details the third survivor who sued an older man for exchanging calculated “grooming” messages to her when she was 14. After two years of communication, he convinced the young girl to meet, where he took her to a motel, photographed her, and posted her images on Backpage.

Overall, McAdams, a lead attorney for the survivors, said the latest Texas ruling will help others who were victimized, and help prevent future victimizations.

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

Additional Reading: Human Trafficking Poses ‘Strategic Threat’ to U.S. National Security: Report

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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