Facebook can be sued in cases involving sex traffickers using its platform to recruit and groom victims, according to a recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.
The decision strikes a blow to big tech’s immunity under federal law from facing responsibility for the conduct of its users.
Three minors had filed lawsuits against the tech company for being targeted by sex traffickers on Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook owns. The minors were raped as a result.
They claimed that Facebook was negligent for allowing this type of conduct to take place on its platform, and they sued under a Texas law that allows civil lawsuits against anyone who benefits from participation in sex trafficking.
The Texas Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice James D. Blacklock late last month, dismissed the negligence claim, but said Facebook couldn’t be shielded from facing legal action under the state law.
Facebook had argued unsuccessfully that it can’t be held liable for the conduct due to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives a broad stroke of immunity to social media companies so they aren’t liable for what users post online.
The law has become a focal point for Capitol Hill Republicans angry over big tech’s censorship of conservatives.
Texas’ highest court disagreed with the federal law being used as a shield, saying it did not “‘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.”
Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a law professor at the University of Dayton, said the ruling is unique.
“This is one of the first times of early shots fired showing you can now go after these big providers,” Mr. Hoffmeister told The Washington Times.
Social media companies will likely have to increase the policing and oversight of their platforms as a result, he added.
And although the ruling pertains to victims in Texas, Mr. Hoffmeister said other states will likely pass similar laws.
“It is going to influence the entire country because people are going to follow. Other states may take similar actions with the laws they passed,” he said. “People are going to look at this case and say, ‘hey, this is what Texas is doing, we can do something similar in our state.’”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the court‘s ruling chips away at big tech’s authority.
“Big Tech repeatedly acts as if they are above the law and are able to wipe their hands clean of the evil, like human trafficking, that they allow their platforms to host,” said Mr. Paxton. “Texas’ battle against modern-day slavery will not allow this injustice, and we will hold all parties in this reprehensible operation accountable. The child victims in this case deserve more; the parents of these victims deserve more; and Texas deserves more.”
A spokesperson from Facebook said the company is reviewing the decision and exploring its next steps.
“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,” the spokesperson said.
Annie McAdams, a lawyer for one of the minors, took to Twitter to celebrate the Texas high court‘s ruling.
“My team is humbled by this order and for the opportunity to work for our clients. Our clients fought over two years for the right to even bring their case. Section 230 does not ‘create a lawless no-man’s-land on the internet.’ God Bless,” she tweeted.
The U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed the limitations of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in protecting big tech companies from legal liabilities.
But in a case involving former President Trump blocking his critics on Twitter, Justice Clarence Thomas signaled he might be willing to review the federal law.
“As Twitter made clear, the right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms. The extent to which that power matters for purposes of the First Amendment and the extent to which that power could lawfully be modified raise interesting and important questions,” Justice Thomas wrote earlier this year.