HOUSTON (CN) — Three Texas lawsuits claiming Facebook is a breeding ground for sex traffickers, brought by women who say as juveniles they were coerced into prostitution by men who contacted them on Facebook and Instagram, survived a motion to dismiss by the social media company.
The Texas 14th Court of Appeals in Houston on Tuesday rejected Facebook’s mandamus petition asking it to declare the company immune from the claims of three Jane Does who sued Facebook and Instagram in separate lawsuits in Harris County in 2018 and 2019.
Facebook claims its immunity from such suits is spelled out in the Communications Decency Act that then-President Bill Clinton signed in 1996, which states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
According to Facebook, the ruling breaks new ground as it’s the first one out of 20 federal and state cases in Texas in which a court has not granted an online service provider’s demand for immunity against state law claims arising from content posted by third parties.
The Jane Does brought claims of negligence, gross negligence, products liability and Texas state law violations against Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram in lawsuits that use identical language.
One of the women says in 2012, when she was 15, a man with whom she had mutual Facebook friends reached out to her on the website and she accepted his friend request.
He told her she was “pretty enough to be a model” and promised to help her make a living as a model. She says she met him in person and he turned out to be a vicious pimp.
“Within hours of meeting the Facebook friend, photos were taken of Jane Doe and
were posted on Backpage, and then she was raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking,” her fourth amended complaint states.
The two other women tell similar stories in their lawsuits. They claim Facebook gives only lip service to its efforts to combat sex trafficking on a community standards page.
“We do not allow content that sexually exploits or endangers children. When we become aware of apparent child exploitation, we report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children,” the webpage states.
But because Facebook can charge advertisers more the more users it has – the company boasts more than 2 billion monthly active users – it does not implement safeguards to stop sex traffickers from exploiting underage women on the site, the Jane Does claim.
The women claim Facebook does not require minors to link their account to a parent or guardian’s account, install filters to stop adults from communicating with minors, or install software that could alert on buzzwords typically used by adults attempting to groom a child such as “I love you,” “I understand you” and “I think you’re beautiful,” and block the adult from messaging the minor.
They are represented by Houston attorney Annie McAdams. She told the Houston Chronicle that the cases should proceed in Houston even though Facebook is based in the Silicon Valley.
“Houston is the backyard of where these children were harmed. Houston has long been recognized as a hub of human trafficking so it is a perfect the city to address the harms that have been created by online sex trafficking,” she said.
Justices Charles Spain and Margaret Poissant made up the majority on a three-judge panel that rejected Facebook’s petition with a two-page unsigned order that simply said the tech giant “has not established that it is entitled to mandamus relief .”
In a dissent, Justice Christopher Tracy asked the Texas Supreme Court to step in.
“I respectfully dissent from these denials of mandamus and I urge the Texas Supreme Court to review these cases. Federal law grants Facebook immunity from suits such as these,” he wrote.
In refusing to dismiss two of the Jane Does lawsuits, Harris County District Judge Steven Kirkland said in May 2019 that Facebook had not addressed the women’s claims it is liable under the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, or FOSTA. The law amended the Communications Decency Act, making it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate or support sex trafficking.
Facebook initially opposed FOSTA but dropped its opposition after lawmakers amended it, changing the grounds for liability from “knowing conduct, by an individual or entity, by any means, that assists, supports or facilitates a violation of sex trafficking laws” to “knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating a violation” of sex trafficking laws.
Facebook’s lead counsel is Scott Brister with Hunton Andrews Kurth. He did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday asking him to comment on the appellate order.