Sex traffickers are as capable as the rest of us of using technology for their businesses, including social media. But what if we could prevent them from using social media for their sex trafficking?
Annie McAdams is a personal injury attorney based out of Houston, TX who has sued insurance companies, drunk drivers, restaurants, and real estate developers. Now she’s taking on Facebook and other major tech companies.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 says internet companies are not responsible for what their users post, but according to McAdams, separate laws should exist that require Facebook and other tech companies to warn users about pimps using Facebook and Instagram to lure minors into sex work and that they should do more to foil the pimps in those attempts.
The logic McAdams uses is that if someone sells a lawnmower to someone else, and in the course of using that lawnmower a blade flies off and injures someone, the law requires the seller to take responsibility for the accident, to warn users, and to take action to prevent it from happening again. But those same, basic protections don’t apply to sex trafficking over the internet.
In the past few years, other lawsuits have put cracks in Section 230’s protections, including one that ended with a ruling saying Airbnb is responsible for users who violate home-rental bans in the area in which they’re located, and another that found Amazon was responsible for selling defective products after one woman sued over a particular defective product that left her partly blind (that case is still ongoing as of this writing).
McAdams has used this argument to sue Facebook and other tech companies in her home state of Texas, but also in California, Georgia, and Missouri. In 2019 alone, a Texas judge repeatedly denied Facebook’s attempts to have McAdams’s lawsuits dismissed.
Facebook is likely to appeal those decisions, but if appellate courts continue to rule in McAdams’s favor, it could reach the Supreme Court and have a profound effect on Section 230. Many more websites and social media platforms could see themselves suddenly held responsible for all sorts of things that take place on their sites.
If the lawsuit McAdams filed against Facebook in Texas reaches the Supreme Court, it could be 2021 before it goes to trial. McAdams has said she’s not looking for a settlement – she wants her day in court, and her clients are aware that this is going to be a long, hard fight. She estimates that a jury will award her clients billions of dollars in the Facebook case. She also said that she is creating a blueprint for attorneys in other states to sue various tech companies for similar alleged infractions.
A spokesperson for Facebook has released a statement saying they do not tolerate any content or behavior that exploits children, and that they use technological resources and a partnership with a children’s advocacy group in order to protect children who use the platform.
McAdams started by suing the hotels out of which the pimps worked, but as she was interviewing the girls who worked for them, she noticed that almost all of them had met their pimps through either Facebook or Instagram.
McAdams wasn’t sure she had a case until she saw Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, testify before Congress last year that he was responsible for the content on the website.
Once she filed her lawsuit, Facebook flooded her office with court filings, but she insists it’s going to take more than that to scare her off.
McAdams argues her allegations against Facebook aren’t about what random people are posting on the site (which is protected by Section 230). They’re about Facebook’s refusal to take steps to protect children, such as requiring users to verify their identity and preventing adults from connecting with children.
In 2018, Congress amended Section 230 so that it allows plaintiffs to sue tech companies in federal court over allegations of sex trafficking, but McAdams has decided to sue Facebook in state court.
McAdams has also sued Salesforce and MailChimp for the parts they allegedly played in allowing Backpage and a Backpage imitator to conduct prostitution on their sites, but those lawsuits have had mixed results so far.
Next up, she and her partner are considering suing other large tech companies, in addition to financial firms, for the parts they allegedly play in sex trafficking.
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