HOUSTON, TX - A battle is mounting against Facebook Inc. to protect teens and children from the underground world of sex trafficking. The company's push towards privacy is exactly what has many concerned.
Annie McAdams is a Houston personal injury attorney. According to those around her, she will be the one to win this fight. McAdams is representing multiple women who were sexually abused or trafficked as minors. All claim they met their trafficker on Facebook.
"The problem is: Facebook doesn't require you to verify identity," McAdams explains. "So, what looks like a 14-year-old classmate is actually a 45-year-old convicted child molester that's interacting with your child. It's building a bridge from the predator right into your home."
When it comes to legal battles over the rights of Facebook users, McAdams says her legal team has made it further than most.
"Something the tech industry has been afforded in this country is no accountability. No one to answer to," McAdams laments. "When my lawsuit was first filed, Facebook didn't even respond."
Long before the internet was a household tool, lawmakers created Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law has been used to protect the site itself from being held accountable for what people post on their platforms. McAdams believes it's time for that law to evolve with the times.
McAdams also believes the key to her case lies in a different set of legal language, citing human trafficking law in the state of Texas.
"If you are a company that knowingly benefits from the facilitation of sex trafficking, then you are liable to the victim."
What does she mean by benefit? McAdams points to how Facebook makes it's money: by showing users ads. All the data they gather on you is used to figure out which ads you're most likely to click. Every time you log on, Facebook gets paid to show you those ads. The more users, the more ads shown, the more money made. But as McAdams points out, Facebook should not allow users to violate the rights of teens and minors just because that user's existence makes them money. In fighting this fight, Anne has seen first-hand the challenge of protecting children on social media.
Pew Research says more than half of all teens in America use Facebook, Instagram, or both.
Tech giants like Facebook have become notorious for seeming to do what they want in the face of opposition. "It's humbling at times," McAdams admits. "I'm sure my privacy is out the window. I'm sure that they know everything about me, but it doesn't scare me because what we're looking at is a proliferation of sex trafficking in our country. Somebody has to do something about it. Somebody has to stand up."
McAdams is well versed in the role technology plays in sex trafficking. She was on the front lines of taking down backpage.com, a now-defunct site for illegal escort services. Facebook, however, is more than a website. It's a media titan. Facebook is present in nearly every home in America.
"Our hope is that this goes to a jury. So everyone can know what I know."
In January, Facebook launched a tool to let users know more about how Facebook gathers your data when you're on other websites. Off Facebook Activity came with a feature that promised to detach your account from past data at the click of a button. McAdams was immediately concerned. Much of the evidence in her cases lie within Facebook's data; the messages and activity from the accounts used to lure her clients. Nearly as soon as it launched, she asked a judge to stop the tool until she could be sure her case wouldn't be impacted.
The judge said yes. While initially Facebook appeared to ignore the order, McAdams soon found herself invited to Silicon Valley to take depositions from the Facebook team.
"I don't normally give a lot of credit, but I will say that after Judge Garrison's order Facebook did come to the table and say, 'ok, let's start this dialogue.'" McAdams says. However, "am I satisfied? Is this the end? No, no, no."
This is bigger than fixing one tool. There are other elements of Facebook that worry both law enforcement and rights advocates. Facebook's mission to provide wall-to-wall encryption is among them. It allows all direct communication on their platforms to be invisible to even Facebook itself. Many fear this will create a perfect way for sex traffickers and child abusers to operate in the shadows -- untraceable.
"It's a very interesting balance, right? Because on one side we have the privacy activists who say 'hey, we have a right to operate how we want to on the internet without Facebook coming in and looking at what we're doing. I have to tell you I don't think you have an expectation of privacy when you are operating on a social media application, and you sure as heck don't have it when it comes to our children and interactions with our children," says McAdams.
Right now, as it exists today, McAdams does not believe Facebook is a safe platform for children.