After three Houston-area lawsuits were filed against Facebook alleging sex traffickers used its platform to commit crimes, Facebook asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene. In response, the highest court in Texas ruled that Facebook could be held liable for sex traffickers using its platform, arguing Facebook isn’t a “lawless no-man’s-land.”
Facebook has argued for over a decade that it’s immune from prosecution because of Section 230, a federal regulation that has broadly been used by courts to grant immunity to social media companies when publishing, un-publishing or censoring content on their platforms.
The state Supreme Court rejected Facebook’s argument, noting a marked shift from previous court rulings.
Last October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a 10-page statement on Section 230, arguing that when Congress first enacted the statute, “most of today’s major Internet platforms did not exist. And in the 24 years since, we have never interpreted this provision. But many courts have construed the law broadly to confer sweeping immunity on some of the largest companies in the world.”
Instead, courts have “departed from the most natural reading of the text by giving Internet companies immunity for their own content,” he wrote.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton lauded the court’s ruling, noting that the federal Communications Decency Act does not leave states powerless to impose liability on websites that knowingly benefit from participation in human trafficking.
“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,” Paxton said in a statement. “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.”
Justice Thomas cited specific rulings he found to be problematic, including a case in which victims of human trafficking were denied their day in court because of how Section 230 was interpreted. In a 2016 California lawsuit against Backpage, victims argued the site allowed users to post classified ads for “escorts” and deliberately structured its website to facilitate illegal human trafficking. A California court ruled against the victims saying Section 230 protected Backpage.
In 2019, a California court in Force v. Facebook Inc. granted “full immunity to [Facebook] for recommending content by terrorists,” Thomas notes.
In an earlier 2006 case, a company was given immunity for civil claims for “knowingly hosting illegal child pornography,” Thomas points out.
The Houston-area plaintiffs asked the Texas Supreme Court to consider Thomas’ position, which it did. In its 33-page ruling, the majority wrote, “We agree that Justice Thomas’s recent writings lays out a plausible reading of section 230’s text,” adding possible interpretive concerns.
The Texas Supreme Court also suggested Section 230 immunity would likely be an issue the U.S. Supreme Court “may soon take up. Justice Thomas may be correct that many courts interpreting section 230 have ‘filter[ed] their decisions through . . . policy argument[s]’ or otherwise ‘emphasized nontextual’ considerations.”
The majority wrote, “We do 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 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.”
In response to the ruling, a Facebook spokesperson told Fox News, “We’re reviewing the decision and considering potential 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 Houston-based sex trafficking victims are now moving forward with their lawsuits against Facebook, alleging Facebook violated the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
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