On March 14 2022, Annie McAdams, a personal injury lawyer running a small firm in Houston, Texas, filed a civil action suit on behalf of one of her clients. The plaintiff was a 23-year-old woman who had endured years of sexual exploitation at the hands of a convicted trafficker. The defendant was one of the most powerful technology companies in the world.
Contained within McAdams’s federal suit was a series of allegations that Meta – the owner of Facebook and Instagram, which are used by more than 3 billion people every day – had knowingly created a breeding ground for human trafficking and was actively facilitating the buying and selling of people for sex online.
The lawsuit alleges that the company’s products – particularly Instagram – connects vulnerable victims with human traffickers and sex buyers, and provides traffickers with the means to groom those victims. It says that human trafficking victims are regularly posted on Instagram and sold for sex against their will and claims that the company failed to take adequate steps to stop this.
In the court documents, the plaintiff – who we are calling Shawna – says she was 18 when she was first contacted on Instagram by a man she didn’t know. She claims that the man – referred to as RL in the court papers – sent her messages on her public profile and on Instagram’s direct-messaging service and that this campaign of grooming led her to agree to meet him in person. Two days after their first meeting, she claims that RL began selling her to sex buyers on Instagram.
She claims that RL posted explicit pictures of her on Instagram along with emojis such as dollar signs, crowns and roses, widely recognized by law enforcement and trafficking experts as indicators of commercial sex advertisements.
“[Meta Inc] knew that the use of these codes were blatant red flags … and were actually sex trafficking advertisements designed to sell her for sex, but [Meta] did nothing to remove or prevent those repeated posts, despite having the ability to do so,” the court papers said.
Shawna alleges that over the course of a year she was sold on Instagram to multiple sex buyers. She says she was threatened with homelessness or violence by RL if she refused to fulfill her “quota” of sex acts.
She went on to testify against RL in a federal criminal trial in Texas and was subsequently sentenced to 40 years for sex trafficking.
However, the lawsuit claims that at the time it was filed in the court in Houston, Instagram had not removed the trafficker’s Instagram account.
McAdams claims that despite repeated attempts by Meta to get the case dismissed, Shawna, who is seeking damages from the company, is now on the brink of taking her civil claim against Meta further through the US court system than any other case has managed. She believes that there are now no serious legal obstacles between her case and bringing Meta before a jury in 2024 to face allegations that he played an integral role in the trafficking of her client.
A spokesperson for Meta said that Meta prohibits sex trafficking on its platforms “in no uncertain terms … we vigorously deny the claims made against Meta in this suit.”
This is not the first time that Meta – in either of its guises as Meta Platforms Inc or Facebook Inc – has faced lawsuits containing similar allegations. Yet in the two decades since it was launched by Mark Zuckerberg from a Harvard dorm, his company – which was rebranded from Facebook to Meta in 2021 – like other technology companies with servers based in the US, has never faced prosecution for illegal and harmful content and activities on its platforms.
For decades, social media companies have been sheltered behind an obscure clause in the 1996 Communications Decency Act – called section 230, which concludes that technology companies are not legally responsible for crimes that occur on their platforms. Section 230 states that providers of “interactive computer services” – which includes the owners of social media platforms and website hosts – should not be treated as the publisher of material posted by users.
Since the act was passed, tech companies such as Meta have argued successfully in US courts that section 230 provides them with immunity from prosecution for any illegal content published on their platforms, as long as they are unaware of that content’s existence, building a fortress of legal precedent.
Section 230 does not shield online platforms from federal criminal charges if they are seen as responsible for facilitating trafficking. And a recent amendment to section 230 – known as the Fosta-Sesta package – means that companies can be held liable under state and civil laws but must be shown to have knowingly assisted or facilitated sex trafficking.
Other cases have attempted to swerve section 230, but in her federal suit, McAdams is tackling it head-on instead, arguing that it has been misunderstood and was never intended to protect a social media company which, she claims, knowingly allows crimes against children to occur on its platforms.
“The problem is not section 230,” McAdams says. “The problem is 20 years of bad precedent and the court’s misinterpretation of 230. In no place does it say that there should be immunity. There is a big difference between immunity and no liability.”
McAdams’ decision to tackle the interpretation of liability under section 230 comes as changing legal winds across the US challenge the lack of accountability granted to tech companies.
The debate around section 230 has become highly polarised. Those who want the clause amended say that the legal safe haven it has provided for internet companies means they have no incentive to root out illegal content on their sites.
Others color that amending section 230 would curb free speech and disrupt democratic values online. Some sex worker groups also warn that under mining section 230 will harm their business and make them unsafe.
McAdams says that the only way to stop social media platforms being used as online marketplaces for sex trafficking is through the courts. Along with Shawna’s case, McAdams has several similar suits filed against Meta across the US in which other plaintiffs allege that Meta enabled, facilitated and profited from their sex trafficking.
“After years of being silenced, I hope my clients will have their day in court,” she said. “Their bravery and resilience have started something that could finally see the internet becoming a safer place for children and opening the door for other survivors to be heard. I have many, many more victims waiting to have their cases reviewed. this is just the start.”
A Meta spokesperson said: “Sex trafficking is abhorrent … we cooperate with law enforcement so they can find and prosecute the criminals who commit these heinous acts, and we use technology to help keep this abuse off our platforms.”
“Our goal is to prevent people who seek to exploit others from using our platform, and we work closely with anti-trafficking experts and safety organizations around the world to inform these efforts. We will continue to join forces with others across society in the fight against sex trafficking and the predators who engage in it.”