A woman filed a lawsuit this week against a number of companies, alleging they helped enable the sexual exploitation of minors. The companies listed in the complaint include the now-defunct US site Backpage, a hotel chain, and Facebook.
The lawsuit, filed on Monday, claims that all of these companies played a role in facilitating the sex trafficking of minors. The complaint alleges that it all started on Facebook.
The plaintiff, Jane Doe, 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 promising her money and a better life, according to the complaint. Jane Doe confided in this Facebook friend after getting into a fight with her mum—the individual then promised her a modeling gig and said they would come pick her up after the argument, the lawsuit states.
“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, specifically the section that 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 have warned all of its 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.
Backpage and US hotel chain America’s Inns, Inc. are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit. Backpage was a classifieds site that had become known as a safe marketplace for sex workers. It was shut down in April after it was seized by the US government for enabling sex trafficking and criminalised sex work. The lawsuit filed on Monday alleges that Backpage executives used automated tools and manual editing to make ads that sexually exploited minors look more legit.
“This sanitization process described above was purposeful on the part of the Backpage Defendants or was undertaken with the knowledge that its sanitization process was encouraging and assisting human traffickers and exploiters to exploit minors and other victims, including Jane Doe,” the complaint states.
It’s vital for these online services to understand the risks their most vulnerable users face, including how these platforms can be weaponised to sexually exploit minors. It’s also important to note that platforms like Facebook have provided consensual sex workers with spaces to safely vet clients while protecting themselves from real-life violence and police abuse.
The lawsuit also states that Americas Inns, Inc. “turned a blind eye” to the human trafficking occurring at its establishments and failed to provide its staff with training on how to identify signs of the sexual exploitation of minors, citing things like someone lingering outside a room, people coming in and out of the room without checking in, and minors paying for the rooms.
“Each of the Hotel Defendants refused to take any steps to alert the authorities, properly intervene in the situation, or take reasonable security steps to improve awareness of sex trafficking and/or prevent the sexual exploitation of minors at their properties,” the lawsuit states.
Jane Doe is seeking monetary relief of one million dollars (£771,000) or more, depending on damages, and demands a trial by jury.
We have reached out to Facebook and Americas Inns, Inc. for comment. [Reuters]