Facebook Provides a Platform for Human Trafficking: Is It Time to Start Holding the Social Media Giant Accountable?

A human trafficking survivor has sued Facebook, Backpage.com and others in Texas state court, accusing the social media giant and the now-defunct classified ads website of providing an unrestricted platform for predators to exploit, extort and recruit children into the sex trade.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Harris County and it claimed all these companies played a role in facilitating the sex trafficking of minors. The complaint alleges that it all started on Facebook.

According to the young woman’s claim, Facebook knowingly allowed its platform to be used as a tool to lure her into the grip of a predator who then advertised her on Backpage. Backpage was recently shut down by the FBI for its connection to prostitution.

The plaintiff, who is named Jane Doe in the complaint, was on Facebook in 2012 when she was 15-years-old. Someone with several mutual friends friended her on the service and then messaged her, telling her that she was “pretty enough to be a model” and promised her money and a better life. Jane Doe confided to the friend that she got into a fight with her mother. The individual then promised her a modeling gig and said they would come pick her up following the fight.

“Within hours of meeting the Facebook friend, photos were taken of Jane Doe and were posted on Backpage,” the complaint states, “and then [she] was raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.”

The lawsuit accuses Facebook of both negligence and gross negligence, stating that it violated the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. The relevant statute states: “A defendant who engages in the trafficking of persons or who intentionally or knowingly benefits from participating in a venture that traffics another person is liable to the person trafficked, as provided by this chapter, for damages arising from the trafficking of that person by the defendant or venture.”

The complaint argues that Facebook should have warned Jane Doe of the dangers of online child grooming and recruitment on the platform and, more broadly, that it should warn all users of the threat of human trafficking on the site, citing the use of PSAs in ad space or when people create accounts. The lawsuit also states that Facebook should have hired human trafficking experts to help develop these awareness campaigns.

Doe was never made aware of any dangers of sex trafficking on Facebook and Facebook never tried to identify the real identity of her Facebook “friend.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress in April that Facebook has a responsibility to make sure people are not using the social media site to harm others or spread misinformation, but this was not done according to the complaint.

These in-house responses are good, but they are not doing enough to prevent the crime…

“We want to see age-appropriate, effective warnings and education, verification of the identity of their users, stronger and easier to use parental controls and stronger safety monitoring systems,” Jane Doe’s attorney said Tuesday.

Facebook responded by saying that it has both internal and external protections to help prevent human trafficking. “We use technology to thwart this kind of abuse and we encourage people to use the reporting links found across our site so that our team of experts can review the content swiftly,” a spokeswoman for Facebook said in a written statement. Furthermore, the spokeswoman said, “Facebook also works closely with anti-trafficking organizations and other technology companies, and we report all apparent instances of child sexual exploitation to NCMEC (the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).”

These in-house responses are good, but they are not doing enough to prevent the crime since theses solutions are aimed at reporting the abuse after it has already happened, rather than preventing it before it happens. As the attorney for Doe states, “Profiting from connecting people requires you to protect those with whom you connect.”

The statute states that knowingly benefitting from participating in a venture . . . is liable to the person trafficked. Facebook is profiting from the ad clicks of its users and the process through which the predator and child meet. In addition, Facebook is clearly aware that human trafficking is a problem on its site demonstrated by some of the actions they have taken to try to report the abuse on its site.

It is time that Facebook be held more accountable for not doing more to prevent sex trafficking. Reported cases of human trafficking continue to increase each year and social media sites are largely cited as one of the major reasons why. Good public policy points in the direction of imposing on Facebook a duty to warn its users of the threat of human trafficking. Facebook knows that its site is a haven for predators to solicit young women like Jane Doe, and this lawsuit presents an opportunity for the state of Texas to force the company to do more to prevent the sex trafficking of minors.