Could a Texas lawyer make Facebook face its ‘ugly’ truth? So far, she’s winning – The Dallas Morning News

It’s one thing for social media giants to let their platforms be used as agents of foreign powers to manipulate the American people, sow social discord and disrupt democracy.

Our elected leaders and even the courts appear willing to abide that disgrace.

But it is altogether another thing to stand by while social media companies facilitate the work of sex traffickers who groom and exploit children and then see those companies use federal law as a shield against taking any real responsibility for what happens on their websites.

That has long been the secret of Big Tech’s consolidation of power and influence — a bad law. And that is the reason that a small number of tech companies have captured near-monopolistic market share — because of a provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act that gives them almost blanket immunity from liability for what people post on their sites.

 Fourth-graders Nathaniel Baldwin (left), Jonathan Halleen (center) and Micah Blanton from Garland's Watson Technology Center have a firm grasp on how using the clickers can enhance a classroom lesson.

Forget about fake news. To Big Tech, child sex trafficking and other horrible abuses aren’t really their problem — at least not when it comes to taking legal responsibility for the way their sites are used as mediums of exchange for this sort of terrible material.

Maybe, though, that is about to change, and maybe Texas will lead the way.

Down in Houston, there is a personal injury lawyer named Annie McAdams who, so far, has had remarkable success in state court pushing forward lawsuits on behalf of three girls who became trafficking victims after men contacted them through their Instagram accounts, groomed them into leaving their homes and had them quickly trapped inside hotel rooms where they were sold to man after man.

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Normally, suits likes McAdams’ are dismissed out of hand, with an army of Facebook lawyers citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects web platforms not only from liability but from lawsuits themselves.

That’s exactly what happened in this case. But at least in the early stages, Texas courts aren’t letting Facebook have its way.

McAdams’ claims, first detailed in a New York Times story last week, have so far survived Facebook’s attempts to kill the suits at the trial court and the appeals court level. And, last week, the Texas Supreme Court denied Facebook’s request to overturn what the company called the 14th Court of Appeals “abuse of discretion” in letting McAdams’ suits go forward.

This represents a substantial change in how state courts have been treating Facebook’s claims. Credit, surely, goes to Congress’ minor awakening last year over social media and sex trafficking. With President Donald Trump’s support, Congress passed what is known as SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which has created a small crack in the immunity shield internet companies have hidden behind.

Illustration by Michael Hogue

McAdams is trying to martial her suits through that crack, widening it with each filing, in the hopes that children who may otherwise never have been contacted by a trafficker will have a day in court.

Settling isn’t on McAdams’ mind. She wants these suits to change the way social media does business.

“We absolutely intend to hold Facebook responsible for what the pimps and traffickers are doing,” she said.

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Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling last week, Facebook now owes McAdams discovery about the company’s policies and practices, things Facebook doesn’t share beyond what it wants shared.

What she finds is likely to be interesting.

One of McAdams’ suits — on behalf of a 14-year-old girl whose life as a trafficking victim began on Instagram — quotes a now infamous 2016 memo by a Facebook vice president named Andrew Bosworth about Facebook’s “ugly” truth.

“Maybe it costs a life exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people.”

Connecting people is a “de facto” good, Bosworth wrote, whatever the cost. In the case of McAdams’ suits, it connected children with the people who exploited them.

Mark Zuckerberg distanced himself from Bosworth’s memo, even as called him a “talented leader who says many provocative things.”

And Zuckerberg, along with top deputies, has since made many public promises about how Facebook is going to fix its content problems.

But here’s the real ugly truth — Facebook isn’t fixing its problems and maybe can’t fix its problems if it wants to.

Look to last week again. Our James Barragan reported that Texas law enforcement officials told lawmakers in Austin that Big Tech is failing to adequately support police and prosecutors even when they identify imminent threats.

Social media companies don’t proactively report enough information to law enforcement to be able to investigate those threats, according to Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw.

Big Tech companies say a lot of things in public about how they are working to make their sites and products safer to protect the public.

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But look at what they do when it comes to lawsuits like McAdams’.

Facebook’s filing before the Texas Supreme Court is replete with the repetition of a single defense — that it is immune from responsibility under the law.

Big Tech wants it both ways — to say they are fixing things and then avoid real responsibility for following through. The days of having it both ways need to end.

It’s unlikely now that they will end in the halls of Congress. Tech companies have become lavish with their lobbying money, and politicians are ever more addicted to their social media audiences.

But perhaps the courts of Texas will be willing to draw the line and say enough is enough on behalf of our children and our country.



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