Amid Sex Trafficking Suit, Facebook Ordered to Pause App That Deletes Browsing History

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at a Facebook developer conference in San Jose, California, on May 1, 2018. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

A Houston judge barred Facebook from implementing a new feature for users to clear their web-browsing histories from the site’s data troves, finding it would destroy evidence in a lawsuit by a young woman who claims a sex trafficker targeted her on the social media platform.

The jurist, 334th District Judge Tanya Garrison, late Thursday granted the Jane Doe plaintiff a temporary restraining order that restrains and enjoins Facebook from deleting website and application tracking data and implementing the new “Off-Facebook Activity” application in the United States. The app enables users to delete their own tracking data from Facebook.

The social media giant announced in an Aug. 20 news release that the Off-Facebook Activity app is now available in Ireland, South Korea and Spain, and the company plans to activate it elsewhere in the coming months.

The judge’s order will delay the rollout of the Off-Facebook Activity application only in the United States, not other countries.

“Off-Facebook Activity is an industry-leading tool that we designed to provide people with more control over their data. Although we have not yet launched it in the United States, we believe this order—which purports to temporarily prohibit us from launching the tool in the United States—undermines user privacy and is entirely without basis,” said an email by Facebook spokesperson Rochelle Nadhiri.

The email added that the company works with child protection experts, law enforcement and other tech companies to “block and remove exploitative photos and videos, as well as to prevent grooming online.” Facebook asks users to report potential human-trafficking content.

Annie McAdams Annie McAdams, partner in Annie McAdams in Houston

Yet in her lawsuit, Doe v. Facebook, the Doe plaintiff alleged that when she was 16, someone sex trafficked her through the Facebook platform. The perpetrator “groomed” her to gain her trust, picked her up from her home, and two hours later, seven men raped her, said her attorney, Annie McAdams, a partner in Annie McAdams in Houston, who has filed similar lawsuits previously. Houston Police rescued the girl two days later, McAdams added. The lawsuit alleged that Facebook knows it has a sex trafficking problem but has done nothing to protect children on the platform.

Facebook denies the allegations.

Doe’s application for a temporary restraining order claimed that Facebook tracks and utilizes user web-browsing and application data, including visits to more than 22,000 pornography and sex sites. In discovery, Doe asked Facebook for information that she said was critical to her case, and the company has produced nothing. She argued the site’s new “off-Facebook activity” application threatens to allow users to delete the very data Doe needs for her lawsuit.

“Allowing Facebook to delete and alter critical information already subject to discovery contained on users’ itemized browsing history before allowing Jane Doe to fully investigate her claim will certainly harm Jane Doe and critically impair her ability to prosecute this case, leaving her without any legal remedy—as Facebook itself has made clear its goal,” the application said.

To prepare for a temporary injunction hearing on Aug. 30, McAdams said she’s seeking depositions early next week against Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief privacy officer and the developer of the off-Facebook activity app.

“We have already defeated the first motion to dismiss against Facebook here in Harris County,” McAdams said. “That was a pretty big decision, because it’s the first time anyone has survived a Communications Decency Act challenge from Facebook.”

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