Facebook Human Trafficking Lawsuit to Be Heard by Texas Supreme Court
Oral arguments in cases involving Facebook and Instagram in relation to human trafficking charges are set to be heard by the Texas Supreme Court on January 21, 2021. The issue at hand is whether minor-aged victims of human trafficking can bring charges against social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram due to the fact that their exploiters used the platforms for recruitment or whether such sites are immune (under the federal Communications Decency Act). It is a complicated issue that deserves further exploration.
The Locus of the Case
The case alleges that Facebook and Instagram failed to adequately warn (or otherwise protect) their users from exploiters who acted as predators in search of minors and used the social media platforms as their hunting grounds. The methods used included grooming and recruiting young people who were subsequently trafficked to Johns that went on to sexually exploit them in hotel rooms. The trafficking operation centered around Backpages (a version of classified ads for social media platforms) – where sexually explicit ads were filtered in an effort to conceal the sex trafficking. All of the following are implicated in the current case:
Backpages (which has since been shut down)
Several owners of Backpages
Various hotels that are alleged to have been part of the human trafficking enterprise
The Communications Decency Act
The Communications Decency Act is a federal law that is intended to provide internet service providers and websites a degree of legal immunity regarding the statements of others that are made through their services or software. Additionally, it allows some immunity to service providers who attempt to restrict, block, or take action against lewd, lascivious, and otherwise objectionable material. The goal is to promote technological advancement while supporting robust enforcement of federal laws that prohibit sex trafficking, obscenity, harassment, and stalking.
Is Facebook Immune?
There are exceptions to the immunity that companies enjoy as a result of the Communications Decency Act, and companies like Facebook are not completely immune from civil liability matters. The Backpages lawsuit in question is not filed under the federal Communications Decency Act, however, but is, instead, filed under the state’s counterpart law. While the federal law includes an exception to immunity if the company in question profits from the exploitation of minors (which Facebook likely does), it does not specify that this exception to immunity extends to state laws that serve the same purpose as the federal law (like the Texas law in question).