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Judge in Facebook sex-trafficking case blocks new privacy feature

  • VIDEO COURTESY NEWSY

    The Off-Facebook Activity tool that would allow users to clear personal information Facebook has received from other websites and platforms was temporarily blocked today by a state judge in Texas.

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A state judge in Texas today temporarily blocked the planned rollout of the Off-Facebook Activity feature in the U.S. at the request of a woman who claims in a lawsuit the company didn’t do enough to save her from being trafficked after meeting predators on the social network as a teenager.

A new Facebook feature that lets users clear their browser history just got sidetracked by concerns that it would also allow sex traffickers to cover their tracks.

A state judge in Texas today temporarily blocked the planned rollout of the Off-Facebook Activity feature in the U.S. at the request of a woman who claims in a lawsuit the company didn’t do enough to save her from being trafficked after meeting predators on the social network as a teenager.

The feature allows users to separate their internet browsing history from their personal profiles. It’s being promoted as a financial sacrifice that will hurt Facebook Inc.’s bottom line while improving user privacy. It has already been launched in Ireland, Spain and South Korea, and the company said this week it’s planning to make it available soon to U.S. users.

Lawyers for the woman who is suing, identified only as Jane Doe, asked Facebook to provide them with the browsing history of her alleged pimp, which the attorneys expected would reveal his ties to sex-trafficking sites. They said in a court filing that Facebook didn’t turn over the data they sought and that the history-clearing feature would allow the pimp to destroy evidence of his role in Doe’s exploitation.

Texas District Court Judge Tanya Garrison in Houston put the rollout of Off-Facebook on hold until at least Aug. 30, when she set a hearing on whether to block the feature for a longer period.

Annie McAdams, a lawyer for Doe, said she will ask the judge to keep the prohibition in place until her legal team finishes litigating the case and several others in the works. She said she was suspicious of the new feature.

“I think it’s real intent was to destroy evidence,” McAdams said.

Facebook has said it doesn’t allow human trafficking on the network and that it works closely with anti-trafficking organizations.

“Off-Facebook Activity is an industry-leading tool that we designed to provide people with more control over their data,” the company said in a statement today. “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.”

The litigation in Houston is the first in the nation seeking to hold companies liable for the behavior of third parties on their web platforms after Congress carved out an exemption to the Communications Decency Act for sex trafficking in 2018.

The case is Doe v. Facebook Inc., 2018-69816, District Court of Harris County, Texas (Houston).

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