Texas Court Ruling in Sex Trafficking Lawsuits Against Facebook Threatens Protections For Social Media Companies

Trafficking Lawsuits Against Facebook

Facebook lost another major court battle to have lawsuits dismissed filed against their company by three young Texas girls claiming they were lured into sex trafficking by men using the social media property as a recruiting tool. In its groundbreaking ruling, in the ongoing cases as of Friday, June 25, 2021, Texas Supreme Court denied Facebook’s claim of ‘liability immunity’ under Section 230 47 U.S.C. of the Communication Decency Act.

The 33-page opinion written by Justice Jimmy Blacklock stated Facebook asked the court to dismiss the three lawsuits made against the company by plaintiffs alleging “they were victims of sex trafficking who became entangled with their abusers through Facebook.”

justice jimmy blacklock, official photo.
Justice Jimmy Blacklock, Official photo.

In the 6-0 ruling, with two justices not participating, Justice Blacklock rejected Facebook’s plea for mandamus relief. This ruling in the plaintiff’s favor now allows the cases to move forward for a jury trial that gives the plaintiff’s attorneys the opportunity to ask for billions in damages unless Facebook attorneys appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year, the 14th Criminal Court of Appeals ruled against Facebook on similar claims of immunity in the same lawsuits.

Assuming the Texas Supreme Court ruling against Facebook isn’t overturned by federal law, Facebook and other social media companies like Snapchat, TikTok, WhatsApp, QQ, WeChat, Tumblr, MySpace, OnlyFans, and Instagram, can be sued for allowing sex traffickers, molesters, pimps and rapists to use their site as a recruiting tool to ensnare young victims. The ruling, if it stands, will also allow social media users to sue if they have been duped by thieves or con investment schemers using Facebook platforms to execute their crimes.

Each trafficked victim claimed in their lawsuits that Facebook, the social media giant, was negligent and “did not attempt to keep sex trafficking off its technology,” news media outlets reported.

The lawsuit further accuses Facebook of failing to implement safeguards to block sex trafficking because the social media company benefits from advertising to more than 2 billion users and that Facebook hadn’t used advertising space for public service announcements regarding the dangers of sex trafficking.

“It was time for the court to adjust the way it looks at how the internet is regulated,” said the plaintiffs’ Houston-based attorney Annie McAdams. “I think it will have a profound influence. This is the first major decision that puts a crack in absolute immunity for internet companies.”

facebook logo
facebook logo

Facebook representatives emailed a statement indicating they were reviewing the high court’s ruling. “We’re reviewing the decision and considering potential next steps. Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook and we will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it,” the statement said.

“We’re not trying to hold Facebook accountable for something some random person posted,” McAdams told a New York Times reporter in December, 2019. “We’re trying to hold Facebook accountable for their independent actions and omissions in the facilitation of trafficking.”

All three female victims that were trapped in the Houston-area sex trafficking industry by adult men they’d met on Facebook or Instagram has been identified as “Jane Doe” in the lawsuits.

Facebook also owns Instagram.

Jane Doe#1, age 15, alleged in her lawsuit against the social media giant Facebook that a man contacted her on Facebook in 2012, telling her she was “pretty enough to be a model.” The lawsuit further alleges the predator promised to help the girl pursue a modeling career. Following an intense argument with her mother, the adventurous teen agreed to allow the man to pick her up.

“Within hours, Jane Doe was raped, beaten, photographed for Backpage.com, and forced into sex trafficking,” the lawsuit stated.

A second Jane Doe lawsuit results from a predator using Instagram in 2017 to contact a 14-year-old girl and, subsequently, the predator used the social media platform to advertise the terrified girl as a prostitute. Once police rescued the victim the traffickers upped their game plan and resumed using the girl’s same profile to entrap other underage girls. The girl’s mother reported the crime to Facebook and, not a single representative, responded to the victim’s mother complaint.

Jane Doe#3 suffered the same disgusting treatment in the sex trade after meeting a trafficker on Instagram.

“The Communication Decency Act was never designed to protect entities that protect the rape of children,” attorney McAdams, told a Houston Chronicle reporter, last year.

Section 230 Explained

What is of utmost importance about the ruling is that it allows the civil lawsuits filed by the three trafficked victims to proceed against Facebook for allegedly failing to stop child predators from using its messaging services to cajole victims into the sex trafficking trade.

Attorneys representing Facebook argued in court the social media company was not responsible for what users say on its site based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media companies from liability for bad things its users do or say like making death threats.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, signed into law in 1996 by then-president Bill Clinton, explicitly says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In response to Facebook’s immunity liability claims, the Texas Supreme Court justices ruled that Facebook’s argument did not apply because Congress in 2018 passed exceptions to Section 230 that permit civil lawsuits against social media companies for violations of state and federal human trafficking laws.

“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. Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing”“This is particularly the case for human trafficking,” Justice Blacklock concluded, writing for the majority.

Section 230 Fails to Protect a Modeling Website From Damages

Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act didn’t protect a modeling website from liability when two men used the site to lure women they drugged and sexually assaulted. Federal appeals court ruled that Section 230 didn’t apply in the case because the site’s owners knew about the crimes and failed to warn the women.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs against Facebook and Instagram said the social media networks were fully informed about pimps and predators recruiting unsuspecting victims through Facebook.

attorney carrie goldberg on lawsuits against facebook
Attorney Carrie Goldberg. photo c/o JWA.com

Brooklyn, New York-based attorney Carrie Goldberg who successfully sued social media companies for not protecting users from predators and abusers told Forbes online news that the Texas court ruling could have an impact beyond the three lawsuits it involves.

“This puts pressure on the tech companies to reform,” Goldberg said. “If Facebook is more vulnerable to being sued, it will make its products safer to avoid lawsuits just as carmakers and baby crib makers have done because there’s major financial consequences for losing,” the attorney explained. Goldberg is currently representing clients pursuing legal action against Facebook and Instagram.

A superstar in her own right, Ms. Goldberg’s legal practice specializes in sexual privacy violations, particularly revenge porn and online abuse. As an author, Goldberg co-wrote and published her book titled: Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls.

Goldberg’s popularity convinced two victims of sex predator and film producer Harvey Weinstein to ask her to represent them in civil lawsuits against the Hollywood titan. A fearless fighter for her clients, Goldberg’s work has attracted the attention of Hollywood bigwigs. According to press reports, Sony Television is in the process of developing a dramatic TV series based on Goldberg’s life and work.

Facebook Spokeswoman Jeanne Moran disavows the numerous allegations that Facebook intentionally disregards complaints about predators, pimps and traffickers using Facebook to recruit victims. “Sex trafficking and child exploitation are abhorrent, and we don’t allow them on Facebook,” Moran said.

“We have policies and technology to prevent these types of abuses and take down any content that violates our rules. And we report all apparent instances of child sexual exploitation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”

The Texas Supreme Court overruled certain portions of the lawsuits related to negligence, yet allowed the most important elements to stand.

Rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims against Facebook for negligence, negligent undertaking, gross negligence, product liability, including claims against human trafficking under Texas Statute, The Texas court dismissed each aforementioned claim except the last, essentially holding Facebook accountable for any trafficking facilitated on Facebook’s platform.

Human Trafficking

Facebook is the most TYPICAL social media outlet for human sex trafficking recruitment in the United States, according to a recent report published by the Human Trafficking Institute. Last year online alone, 59 percent of victims in active cases who were recruited through social media were discovered on Facebook, the report stated, with 41 percent of all recruitments taking place online.

“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 CBS News earlier in June. “Facebook overwhelmingly is used by traffickers to recruit victims in active sex trafficking cases.”

Authorities estimate up to approximately 100,000 underage girls and boys are sex trafficked in the U.S. each year. In 2019, nearly 40 percent of the underage victims met their traffickers online. An investigation report issued by Statista indicated that BackPage, Craigslist and Facebook were the primary source of websites used by sex traffickers from 2015-2019.

Sex trafficking of teenagers is notorious in the Houston, Texas, area where the crimes occurred and also where the lawsuits were filed on behalf of the victims. Former America’s Most Wanted TV Host John Walsh once did an investigative report that aired on CNN called “Inside Houston’s Sex Slave Trade.”

Section 230

How does Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act protect websites and social media companies from liability?

The wording of Section 230 law protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts illegal items or comments on a particular site, although there are exceptions for copyright violations, sex-related material, and violations of federal criminal law.

Senator Ron Wyden official portrait
Senator Ron Wyden official portrait

Senator Ron Wyden(D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox(R-CA) crafted Section 230 – to provide adequate protections to website owners to give owners leeway to moderate sites without worrying about legal liability.

The law was particularly important for social media networks but it equally covered many websites and news websites integrated with comment sections. On the flip side, critics have incessantly argued that Section 230 allows websites and social media networks to ignore harm done to users.

Breakdown Analysis Explains How Updated Sex Trafficking Laws Overrule Section 230

Facebook’s claim of immunity is based on Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act, a statute known in the tech world as the “First Amendment” of the internet. As stated, Section 230 provides legal protections for online social media platforms and website operators from liability for content published through use of their services. With the proliferation of predators and traffickers using social media to recruit young victims into prostitution on a nationwide scale, two new laws were passed to overrule certain sections of Section 230.

Trafficked and molested victims who met their predator online needed an avenue to pursue to hold social media companies responsible for what happened to them. On April 11, 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed two historic bills into law that had been passed by the House and Senate.

The first bill was called the “Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (Abbreviated FOSTA). And the second bill “Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act” (SESTA). Trump’s signing the bills swung doors wide open for victims of sex trafficking to legally pursue websites/social media sites that facilitate trafficking.

Passage of both bills severely undercut Section 230, thus making it easier for federal and state prosecutors and private citizens to go after social media companies whose sites were used by traffickers to recruit underage girls and boys for either sex trafficking or molestation.

Trafficking victims lawsuits against facebook. Base scales image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Trafficking victims lawsuits against facebook. Base scales image by Arek Socha from Pixabay, customization by NewsBlaze

Fight isn’t Over

The epic battle between Facebook’s numerous top-notch lawyers and the plaintiff’s civil attorneys over whether Section 230 protects Facebook from liability is probably far from over unless Facebook settles the lawsuit.

Meanwhile the ongoing lawsuits against Facebook iare closely watched by tech giants Google, Twitter and YouTube who are equally affected by Section 230. Big tech leaders Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey will be as engaged in this Facebook lawsuit as Mark Zuckerberg. Down through the years the courts across the nation have allowed the social media giants to claim the protection afforded under U.S. government law Section 230, even in cases of their blatant censorship. But the Texas judges in this case have opened the giants up to constant scrutiny and very likely future lawsuits due to the weight of evidence in these sex trafficking lawsuits.

“The plaintiffs have fought for over two years simply for the right to bring their case to court,” Attorney McAdams said. “While there is a long road ahead, today has given the victims the right to be heard.”

Jane Doe vs Facebook inc, dba Instagram Relators; Case# 20-0434 is a Developing Story. Check Back for Updates.

Facebook’s lead counsel is Austin-based prominent civil attorney and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister. Brister’s law firm includes attorneys Hunton, Andrew, and Kurth.

Newsblaze Houston-based Legal Affairs Reporter Clarence Walker Can Be Reached At: [email protected]

Clarence Walker
As an analyst and researcher for the PI industry and a business consultant, Clarence Walker is a veteran writer, crime reporter and investigative journalist. He began his writing career with New York-based True Crime Magazines in Houston Texas in 1983, publishing more than 300 feature stories. He wrote for the Houston Chronicle (This Week Neighborhood News and Op-Eds) including freelancing for Houston Forward Times.Working as a paralegal for a reputable law firm, he wrote for National Law Journal, a publication devoted to legal issues and major court decisions. As a journalist writing for internet publishers, Walker's work can be found at American Mafia.com, Gangster Inc., Drug War Chronicle, Drug War101 and Alternet.His latest expansion is to News Break.Six of Walker's crime articles were re-published into a paperback series published by Pinnacle Books. One book titled: Crimes Of The Rich And Famous, edited by Rose Mandelsburg, garnered considerable favorable ratings. Gale Publisher also re-published a story into its paperback series that he wrote about the Mob: Is the Mafia Still a Force in America?Meanwhile this dedicated journalist wrote criminal justice issues and crime pieces for John Walsh's America's Most Wanted Crime Magazine, a companion to Walsh blockbuster AMW show. If not working PI cases and providing business intelligence to business owners, Walker operates a writing service for clients, then serves as a crime historian guest for the Houston-based Channel 11TV show called the "Cold Case Murder Series" hosted by reporter Jeff McShan.At NewsBlaze, Clarence Walker expands his writing abilities to include politics, human interest and world events.Clarence Walker can be reached at: [email protected]