Once again, Twitter has demonstrated its perplexing propensity for inconsistent and/or biased policies regarding its guidance around policing and censoring its users. This time the consequences of their apparent guidance profoundly affected the life of a minor, as detailed in a civil lawsuit brought to Federal Court by the boy and his mother in Northern California on Wednesday.
The complaint states the following:
The civil lawsuit, Doe v Twitter, filed Jan. 20 against the tech giant alleges that, under the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Reauthorization Act (“TVPRA”), Twitter "failed to report sexual abuse material, promoted the receipt and distribution of child pornography" and, in contravention to state laws, "knowingly hosted sexual exploitation material, including child sex abuse material (referred to in some instances as child pornography), and allowed human trafficking and the dissemination of child sexual abuse material to continue on its platform, therefore profiting from the harmful and exploitive material and the traffic it draws.
13-year-old plaintiff John Doe was solicited and recruited for sex trafficking as a minor. After Doe escaped from the manipulation, explicit videos depicting John were later distributed on Twitter. Despite attempts to get it removed through abuse reports and other means, Twitter refused to take the material down.
The boy met his traffickers through the Snapchat app. He and his traffickers had exchanged photos there, and, over time, the boy was coerced to share more sexually graphic content or, as the suit states, the material he had already posted would "be shared with parents, coach, and pastor." The child eventually broke ties with the traffickers, but the material resurfaced in 2019 on Twitter. Starting in December 2019, the content was reported at least three times, but it wasn't until Jan. 30, 2020, when federal law enforcement became involved, that the explicit material was removed.
Doe v Twitter Complaint/excerpted screen capture
However, "a March 2019 policy also asserts that it will usually permanently suspend accounts with child sexual abuse material, and report any such material to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children." The keyword here is “usually”.
The boy, now 16, became aware of the tweets in early 2020 when classmates began to bully him. He never once authorized the posting of the content on Twitter.
Court records show that “teasing, harassment, vicious bullying” had led him to become “suicidal." Doe filed complaints with Twitter, and on Jan. 21, a support agent asked for ID to prove he was a minor, but, according to the parents, the responses were either delayed or denied. His mother followed up with two more complaints. Eventually, on Jan. 28, 2020, Twitter told the family that the content did not violate their policies and stated, "no action would be taken at this time."
Doe v Twitter lawsuit/excerpted screen capture
JOHN DOE'S RESPONSE
John Doe's response published in the complaint:
Doe v Twitter lawsuit/John Doe response screen capture part 1
Doe v Twitter lawsuit/John Doe response screen capture part 2
A Department of Homeland Federal Agent finally contacted the family on Jan. 30 to say that the content had been successfully removed.
Section 230 should not protect Twitter from liability in cases like this one either. The law was "never intended to protect websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex-trafficking victims.
Sex Trafficking is a multimillion-dollar industry. The U.S. has the largest commercial sex trafficking industry in the world. South African filmmaker and activist Jaco Booyens discusses the sex trafficking industry in his Tedx Talks video from February of 2020. He produced a film called "8 Days" that documents the descent of a young girl into the world of sex trafficking. His sister was trafficked by a media mogul for 6 years when she entered a South Africa singing competition. He says that anyone can be manipulated by exploiting one's vulnerabilities. The average age of a trafficked child in the U.S. is 12-years-old. The U.S. leads the world in commercial trafficking, and our country has the youngest average age of children exploited in the world. "Over a half a million children are trafficked in the U.S. every day," says Booyens. A pimp draws $200k-$250k a year in salary, tax-free, from one child. Child trafficking exists, in part, he says, "because good people do nothing."