On June 25, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation will be able to sue Facebook/Instagram for their ‘knowing or intentional participation in human trafficking.’
The final appeal instance of the state of Texas ruled in favor in the case of three victims of sexual exploitation who were deceived through the Facebook and Instagram platforms when they were minors.
In the previous instances, the Silicon Valley company managed to dismiss the claims based on Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from being held liable for content posted by their users.
For Justice James Blacklock, however, the argument that Facebook is not liable for what its users post was not the focus of the lawsuit.
“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 judge wrote.
“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 court held that plaintiffs’ ‘claims for human trafficking may proceed’ but dismissed a portion of the claims accusing the company of for negligence, gross negligence, negligent undertaking, and products liability.’
The judge, in his opinion, cited a recent change to Section 230 passed by Congress that allows ‘civil liability may be imposed on websites that violate state and federal human-trafficking laws.’
“Section 230, as amended, does not withdraw from the states the authority to protect their citizens from internet companies whose own actions – as opposed to those of their users — amount to knowing or intentional participation in human trafficking,” the judge wrote.
The ruling holds Facebook/Instagram responsible for having allowed these perverse human traffickers to use without the company’s supervision, the platform not only to deceive their victims, but also used its advertising services to profit, i.e., their victims were raped after having been ‘sold’ by posting ads on these social networks.
The Texas Supreme Court clarifies that it does not challenge the way Section 230 is interpreted by the federal courts – which protects them from the content posted by their users – and only holds Facebook responsible for having allowed human trafficking.
Background of the complainants
Of the three complainant victims, two were 14 years old when it happened and one was 15 years old. Their traffickers contacted them because they were ‘friends’ of a mutual friend. They established trust and took advantage of some moment of weakness of the girls to offer them modeling work, with fake photos of women in bikinis and with a lot of money.
Once the victims went to physically meet their traffickers, they took pictures of them and published them on Instagram and Backpage.com (a page that was downloaded precisely for serving to prostitute trafficking victims) through which they got ‘clients.’
What Facebook says
Spokespersons for the Californian company assured that the company does everything possible to combat sexual exploitation.
“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,” Facebook said according to Daily Caller.
However, a 2020 report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which aims to remove child abuse material, sex trafficking and online seduction from the reported 21.4 million reports of “instances of apparent child sexual abuse material.”
Ninety-five percent of these reports were reported on Facebook, which equates to 20.3 million incidents where child abuse material was reported.
According to the Federal Human Trafficking Report, this makes Facebook the leading platform for facilitating human trafficking.