In the Media

Meta creating a “breeding ground” for child predators – Dr. Ann Olivarius comments in CNN Business

Extract:

Less than a year into his new role as New Mexico’s attorney general, Raúl Torrez in December filed a lawsuit accusing Meta of creating a “breeding ground” for child predators and exposing young users to sexually explicit material. The complaint alleges that Meta employees have for years raised alarms that children may be at risk of sexual abuse on its platforms, but that the company has failed to adequately address the issue. (Meta has firmly pushed back on the claims and says it has more than 30 safety and well-being tools for teens and parents.)

Meta, along with other major social media companies, faces growing scrutiny over the safety of young users on its platforms. Lawmakers, parents and online safety advocates have raised concerns about the impact of social media on teens’ mental health, body image and overall wellbeing. But of the several lawsuits filed against Meta over child safety in recent years, none have focused as pointedly as Torrez’s case on alleged child sexual exploitation.

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Torrez’s lawsuit seeks an order blocking Meta from “engaging in unfair, unconscionable, or deceptive practices.” A ruling against Meta could also be an indicator that other big tech firms could be successfully sued for similar issues — and that there might be a workaround to the powerful law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media platforms from being held liable for content posted by their users.

“I do think there’s precedent here” for using the court for corporate accountability, said Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee whose 2021 whistleblower disclosure helped bring public awareness to the risks to young people from social media. “We didn’t pass a law … for tobacco. We didn’t do it for opiates. In both of those cases, (progress) came through lawsuits.”

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In January — after Torrez’s lawsuit was filed and ahead of the Senate committee hearing on online youth safety — Meta rolled out additional youth safety features, including updating teens default privacy settings to restrict anyone they don’t follow from messaging them, including other teens. The move comes after Meta in 2021 restricted adults over the age of 19 from messaging teens who don’t follow them.

Ann Olivarius, senior partner at the law firm McAlister Olivarius who has worked on cases related to sexual abuse and exploitation, said similar cases against other internet firms have not been successful because of the power of Section 230 protections.

But she said that if New Mexico can “prove their case, it means that maybe section 230 will be amended, and at least there will be carve outs, there’ll be exceptions, for porn, for trafficking, for rape, for child abuse, for gender violence.”

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