A sex-trafficking victim is urging the Supreme Court to wade into one of the most the politically charged issues surrounding social media -- whether tech companies are responsible when their platforms are used to commit crimes.
The victim, who is proceeding anonymously, is specifically asking the court to review a Texas Supreme Court ruling that dismissed the bulk of her claims against Facebook.
She argues in a petition to the Supreme Court that she was “forced into sex trafficking through Facebook” at the age of 15, after meeting a trafficker through the service.
The victim initially sued the social media platform in state court in Texas for a host of claims, including that it was negligent, its service dangerously defective, and that it violated a state sex-trafficking statute.
The highest court in Texas ruled earlier this year that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protected Facebook from the bulk of her claims, but allowed the victim to proceed with allegations that Facebook violated a Texas state law regarding sex trafficking.
The court said that claim fell within a recent exception to Section 230.
The victim is now asking the Supreme Court to review the Texas ruling, in hopes of reinstating her other claims against Facebook.
Those claims -- that Facebook was negligent, and that its service was dangerously defective -- would almost certainly be easier for her to prove than that Facebook violated the Texas trafficking law, which only applies when someone “intentionally or knowingly” benefits from participating in a sex-trafficking venture.
Her lawyers argue that the Texas court, like others throughout the country, interpreted the 25-year-old media law too expansively.
“The prevailing understanding of Section 230 has broadly immunized defendants from civil liability based on little more than the bare fact that the company does business through the internet,” her lawyers write in a petition seeking review by the Supreme Court.
Judges in numerous federal and state courts have repeatedly said that Section 230 protects online companies from lawsuits over users' posts -- unless they fall within one of the law's exceptions. The statute currently exempts posts that infringe intellectual property rights, violate a federal criminal law, or a state sex trafficking law.
Section 230 has immunized Twitter and Yelp from defamation lawsuits based on users' reviews, and shielded Craigslist from negligence lawsuits based on products sold by users, just to name a few examples.
It's safe to say that few politicians devoted much thought to Section 230 between the mid-1990s and last year, when former President Trump unsuccessfully demanded its repeal.
In the last year, however, numerous officials have argued that Section 230 should either be revised or repealed. In general, Democrats have proposed amend the law by encouraging tech companies to filter out more material, while Republicans have argued that tech companies should carry all speech that's legal -- even if it's offensive or untrue.
So far, the Supreme Court hasn't weighed in on how to interpret Section 230. But Justice Clarence Thomas, for one, clearly hopes to do so.
He recently suggested in a written opinion that judges across the country have misinterpreted the law too favorably for tech companies.
“In an appropriate case, we should consider whether the text of this increasingly important statute aligns with the current state of immunity enjoyed by Internet platforms,” he wrote.
The victim's lawyers obviously hope four other judges will agree with Thomas.
Facebook is expected to respond to the petition by October 27.