Earlier this month, Liberty Nation reported on Tech Transparency Project’s (TTP) reference to numerous Facebook accounts linked to human trafficking. According to the study, it appeared the page owners were not even trying to hide what they were doing, listing prices for individuals to be escorted across the border as well as citing the amount of money it would take to pay off the cartel to be able to cross its lands – and the warning of possible death if the drug lords’ demands were not met. Now the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that Facebook can indeed be sued if sex traffickers use the site to exploit children. Was this a good decision, or one that will threaten freedom of speech on the internet from here on out?
The ruling by Justice James Blacklock on Friday, June 25, will allow three women who claim to have been forced into prostitution when they were teens by abusers who were using the social media site to entice girls to go ahead with their lawsuits. Blacklock said that they could file under state law to seek legal action against Facebook for benefiting from sex trafficking. However, he explained, they could not pursue action under federal law claiming the social media giant failed to warn minors or take measures to block sex trafficking on its site.
The lawsuit argued that Facebook has not been diligent in providing safeguards to block sex traffickers and alleged the reason is it benefits from advertising from its more than two billion users. Facebook appealed to the Supreme Court after its complaints in district court and the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Texas didn’t happen, declaring it was protected under Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act (CDA). However, Blacklock rejected the argument, saying, “The statutory claim for knowingly or intentionally benefiting from participation in a human-trafficking venture is not barred by Section 230.” The judge continued:
“Perhaps advances in technology now allow online platforms to more easily police their users’ posts. On the other hand, perhaps subjecting online platforms to greater liability for their users’ injurious activity would reduce freedom of speech on the internet by encouraging platforms to censor ‘dangerous’ content to avoid lawsuits.”
A Facebook Win
Although the Big Tech company lost in Texas, in Washington it was handed a win. A federal judge on Monday, June 28, dismissed two antitrust lawsuits that asserted Facebook is a monopoly, especially after the company acquired Instagram and WhatsApp.
In the first lawsuit, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg said the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had not proved that the social media company controlled 60% of the market and gave them 30 days to file an amended complaint. “It is almost as if the agency expects the Court to simply nod to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is a monopolist,” he wrote. In the second lawsuit, the judge ruled that the group of state attorneys general had waited too long to file a complaint about Facebook acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp.
Advocates for taking action against Big Tech were not pleased with the outcome. Representative Ken Buck (R-CO), who sits on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, tweeted:
“Today’s development in the FTC’s case against Facebook shows that antitrust reform is urgently needed. Congress needs to provide additional tools and resources to our antitrust enforcers to go after Big Tech companies engaging in anticompetitive conduct.”
The Section 230 Debate
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the original purpose of the CDA was to “restrict free speech on the Internet.” However, that didn’t go over well with the online community, and “the anti-free speech provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court.” Section 230 survived to protect online providers. The legislation states:
“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 policy framework allows YouTube users to upload their videos, social media accounts, reviews on Amazon and other websites, and sites such as Craigslist to post classified ads. Given the fact that the sheer volume of users would make it difficult to oversee content – “Facebook alone has more than one billion users and YouTube users upload 100 hours of video every minute” – this legislation is supposed to protect them from being held liable for what their users post.
CDA 230 doesn’t protect only the big guys. Bloggers get the same protection in case commenters write something objectionable on their blogs, the opinions and works of a guest writer, or even information sent out on RSS feeds.
Without this legislation, companies and individuals would have to be very diligent, censoring everything placed on their websites, or even restricting any comments or public interactions. Free speech as we know it on the World Wide Web would be very different today without this protection – for better or worse.
And this is why there is such a debate on Section 230. When should a company or individual be required to censor or block content? Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been facing legal issues for their repeated censorship of mostly conservative postings. Advocates argue these companies should be considered publishers since they pick and choose the types of material they want to publish and their customers to see —in other words, whatever fits their narratives. As such, they should be treated like publishers and be made accountable.
But the media giants want to hide behind the wall of protection that Section 230 offers — as some would say, have their cake and eat it, too. How, for example, can Facebook ban COVID conversations yet allow human sex trafficking sites to flourish? Supporters of penalizing the social media site suggest, if they are going to censor one, they need to censor all.
Blacklock may be setting a precedent that will have media conglomerates scrambling to get their ducks in a row. Because Facebook profited from the human trafficking pages with popup ads and pushes, the three women can go forward with their lawsuits. How will this decision affect future claims against the social media dragons who rule with censorship hammers and dollar-sign eyes? Time will tell.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.