Before losing a recent landmark court case, Facebook attempted to distance itself from the human trafficking taking place on its platform. If only it were as hands-on about child sex crimes as it is about political speech.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Facebook can be held liable for the conduct of pimps and traffickers on its platform – a landmark decision that opens the firm up to further legal action from a trio of teenage trafficking victims.
In the suit, filed in 2018, the three young women accused the company of running “an unrestricted platform to stalk, exploit, recruit, groom, and extort children into the sex trade.” One was 15 when an older man contacted her on Facebook, offered her a modeling job, photographed her, posted the pictures on the now-defunct BackPage website, and prostituted her to other men, leading her to be “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.” The other two girls were 14, and reported almost identical experiences, with one openly pimped out for “dates” on Instagram, a Facebook subsidiary.
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Facebook argued that it was shielded from liability by Section 230 of the US’ Communications Decency Act, which distinguishes content posted on Facebook from content posted by Facebook, thereby treating the company as a platform for discussion, rather than a publisher of that discussion. However, Congress amended Section 230 in 2018 to add an exemption for platforms that knowingly allow trafficking to take place, and the Texas court agreed that Facebook had “knowingly or intentionally participate[d] in the evil of online human trafficking.”
What’s interesting here is Facebook’s flippancy about all of this. The company stuck to its Section 230 defense, arguing that the conduct of pimps and abusers is none of its business. A company spokesperson made it clear, however, that sex trafficking was “abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook.” Nonetheless, in one of the cases, a teenage victim’s mother says she reported her daughter’s abuse to the company, only to hear nothing back.
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Contrast this with Facebook’s attitude towards political speech. The company has a single page of policy on trafficking, urging concerned users to “contact 911 or local law enforcement immediately,” and to notify it “if someone posts something on Facebook related to human trafficking.” Listing its free-speech policies, on the other hand, would have this article running far beyond the word limit. Here’s a short and by no means exhaustive list of what Facebook does to control what users can and cannot say:
Provides a button to allow swift reporting of “fake news,” so third-party “fact checkers” can evaluate and remove it, aided by “machine-learning” algorithms.
Deploys a “Dangerous Organizations Operations team” to remove pages linked to conspiracy theories and militia groups, even if their content is not violent.
Uses artificial intelligence (AI) to delete any content calling into question the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines, and send government-approved information to anyone who’s interacted with this content.
Countless other examples of Facebook’s anti-free-speech policies and actions exist, but just imagine if the company dedicated the same resources to purging its platform of traffickers? The cost of creating and training AI to root out vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories is likely immense, as is the sum Facebook pays its human fact checkers to back up the machines. So, why not refocus this juggernaut on the most heinous of crimes?
“Hate speech” is a controversial and flexible term, and according to Facebook’s definition, ranges from insulting jokes in which certain groups of people are called “smelly” to “calls for exclusion and segregation.” But even at the harsher end of that scale, it’s still just speech. The cases heard in Texas last week culminated in real, brutal sexual violence. Likewise, “misinformation” is just “information” Facebook deems unwelcome. It’s a damn sight less serious than the literal rape of children.
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Out of all of this, some good may emerge. Thanks to the Texas Supreme Court, Section 230 no longer protects Facebook from liability in trafficking cases, but Republicans have also threatened for some time to strip the company of its protection in light of its censorship policies. If, they argue, Facebook removes conservative content, it is no longer acting as a neutral publisher and therefore not entitled to Section 230’s protection.
Republicans missed a golden opportunity to do this when they held the presidency and both houses of Congress during the Trump years. Trump himself regularly complained about Silicon Valley’s liberal bias, but ultimately allowed himself to be won over and placated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Unless Zuckerberg dramatically reorients his company’s surveillance and censorship machinery, whoever follows in Trump’s footsteps in 2024 should work tirelessly to break the Silicon Valley CEO like a dog and bring him to heel.
The future of free political speech, and the wellbeing of defenseless children depends on it.
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