The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday in a Houston case that Facebook can be held liable for the conduct of sex traffickers using Facebook to recruit and prey on children.
The ruling came after three lawsuits involving teenage victims who met their traffickers through Facebook’s messaging platforms.
The victims sued Facebook for negligence and products liability, claiming that Facebook did not warn users about or how to prevent sex trafficking on its platform. The suit also alleges that Facebook financially benefited from the exploitation of the trafficking victims.
The Court ruled that the lawsuit filed by the victims can move forward on the grounds that Facebook violated Texas’ Civil Practice and Remedies Code passed in 2009.
Facebook lawyers attempted to use section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides publishers like Facebook immunity from liability from third-party content published on its site.
“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,” said the 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,” continued the opinion. “Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”
The justices also added that section 230 was recently amended by Congress to include the possibility of civil liability for sites that violate human-trafficking laws.
The lawsuits were filed by three Houston women who were recruited into sex trafficking rings through Facebook’s apps. The women stated in the lawsuit that Facebook gave credibility to the traffickers and allowed them “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 of the plaintiffs, who was 15 at the time, said a “mutual friend” reached out to her on Facebook in 2012. The “friend” 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 individual complimented her and offered her a “modeling” job. After they met in person, photos of her began appearing on prostitution ads on Backpage. Backpage has recently been shut down due to its abundance of prostitution available on the site. The girl says she was “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.”
Another plaintiff, who was 14 at the time, says a male contacted her on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. The trafficker offered her with “false promises of love and a better future.” The plaintiff argued that the easy access to her through social media allowed her trafficker to advertise her and set up “dates.”
After the woman was rescued from the traffickers, the traffickers continued to use her profile to lure in other minors. The family says the girl’s mother reported the instances to Facebook and never received a response.
The third plaintiff, who was 14 at the time, was sent a follow request on Instagram by a man around 30 whom she did not know. They exchanged messages for a couple years, which was described as an effort to “groom” her in an attempt to sex-traffick her. In March 2018, the man brought the girl to a motel, photographed her, and then created prostitution ads on Backpage. The individuals who responded to the ad raped her.