Facebook can’t be sued for what people say on its platform, but it can be for letting sex traffickers get away with using the site as a recruiting tool, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday, opening the door to more lawsuits and setting up a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court that could erode a key legal protection for social media companies.
The ruling allows civil lawsuits to proceed that were filed by three victims of sex trafficking against Facebook for allegedly failing to stop child predators from using its messaging services to recruit them.
Facebook had argued that it was not responsible for what users say on its site based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media companies from liability for bad things its users do, like making death threats.
The Texas Supreme Court justices ruled that Facebook’s argument did not apply because Congress in 2018 passed exceptions to Section 230 that permit civil lawsuits against media platforms for violations of state and federal human trafficking laws.
Facebook is “reviewing” the ruling and “considering potential next steps,” a spokesperson told Forbes.
The decision was 6-0, though two justices did not take part.
“Holding internet platforms accountable for the 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,” Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote for the majority.
The court’s ruling could have an impact beyond the three lawsuits it involves, says attorney Carrie Goldberg, who has sued social media companies for not protecting users from predators and abusers. “This puts pressure on the tech [companies] to reform,” she said. If Facebook is more vulnerable to being sued, it will make its products safer to avoid lawsuits, she said, just as carmakers and baby crib makers have done: “Because there’s major financial consequences” for losing. Goldberg, who is representing clients pursuing legal action against Facebook and Instagram right now, said the relative lack of case law against social media companies for the harms that occur on their platforms means that the Texas ruling—despite only setting precedent for Texas—is likely to be cited in opinions in other states.
What To Watch For
Facebook can appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that would give the court the chance to issue a ruling that goes further than the child trafficking exceptions to Section 230, potentially imperiling a key legal shield for the tech industry. “If you open it up, they could narrow the whole scope of Section 230,” said Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the United States Naval Academy and the author of a book on the history of the law. He noted that Justice Clarence Thomas has said he believes Section 230 is too broadly interpreted in favor of the tech companies.
Teen sex trafficking victims from Houston land major court win against Facebook (Houston Chronicle)
Texas Supreme Court Just Ruled Against Facebook—And This Could Have Implications Across the Internet (ALM Media)
Court Ruling (Texas Supreme Court)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .