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Facebook Can’t Dodge Sex-Trafficking Case in Texas

Texas’ high court said the claims of three women who say they were victims of human trafficking while minors on the tech giant's platform may proceed.

(CN) — The Texas Supreme Court on Friday partially denied Facebook’s petition to throw out lawsuits brought by three women who say they were lured into sex trafficking as minors by men who contacted them on Facebook and Instagram.

The Jane Does filed separate lawsuits between 2018 and 2019 against the social media giant alleging negligence, gross negligence and product liability. They also claimed a violation of Texas state law that opened the door for civil litigation against those who “intentionally or knowingly benefit from participation in a sex-trafficking venture.”

In a February hearing, Facebook argued that it is immune against such claims under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online service providers from liability for content published on their platforms by third parties and for regulating content on their sites.

On Friday, the state’s high court partially agreed with Facebook, ruling that the plaintiffs’ claims for negligence and product liability should be dismissed. However, the justices held their human-trafficking claims under state law may proceed.

In its opinion delivered by Justice Jimmy Blacklock, the court said it does “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,” Blacklock wrote for the court. “Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing. This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”

As for the plaintiffs' claims of negligence and product liability, the court explained they should be dismissed due to the way in which federal courts have interpreted the Communications Decency Act, which holds that 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.”

“The United States Supreme Court—or better yet, Congress—may soon resolve the burgeoning debate about whether the federal courts have thus far correctly interpreted section 230 to bar such claims,” Blacklock wrote.

Justices Brett Busby and Rebeca Aizpuru Huddle did not participate in the court's decision.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the social media giant is “reviewing the decision and considering potential next steps."

“Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook," the spokesperson said. "We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it.” 

Annie McAdams, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said, “The plaintiffs have fought for over two years simply for the right to bring their case to court. Today, the Texas Supreme Court, has given these victims the right to be heard. While there is a long road ahead, today our clients are humbled and grateful for the opportunity to proceed.”

According to the lawsuits, the three women were between the ages of 14 and 15 when they were contacted by strangers on Facebook or Instagram.

In one case, a stranger contacted a 15-year-old girl on Facebook in 2012 and told her she was “pretty enough to be a model” and promised to help her pursue a modeling career. After confiding in him about an argument with her mother, she agreed to let him pick her up. 

“Within hours, Jane Doe was raped, beaten, photographed for Backpage.com, and forced into sex trafficking,” the Does said in an earlier brief with the Texas Supreme Court.

Backpage has since been shut down for its role in human trafficking.

In another case, traffickers used Instagram in 2017 to contact a 14-year-old girl and then used the platform to advertise her as a prostitute, Blacklock wrote.

Following her rescue, the traffickers continued to use her profile to attempt to entrap other minors in the same manner. The girl’s mother reported these activities to Facebook, which never responded, according to Friday's ruling.

In the third case, a 14-year-old girl in 2016 was contacted by a stranger on Instagram and communicated with him for about two years until he convinced her to sneak away and meet him. He took her to a motel, photographed her, and posted the pictures to Backpage. 

She was then “raped repeatedly by men who responded to her traffickers’ posting on the site,” Blacklock wrote.

Follow Rosana Hughes on Twitter

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