Section 230 Does Not Protect Sex Trafficking—Lawyer Lisa Haba on Lawsuit Against Twitter
Twitter is being sued for refusing to remove a video of alleged child sex abuse from its platform.
According to the lawsuit, a child was coerced by sex traffickers to record sex acts with another minor. A video of this was later posted on Twitter. When he asked for the video to be removed, Twitter allegedly said it “didn’t find a violation of our policies, so no action will be taken at this time.” It was only when the Department of Homeland Security stepped in that it was finally removed.
In this episode, we sit down with attorney Lisa Haba. The case was jointly filed by The Haba Law Firm, The Matiasic Firm, and The National Center on Sexual Exploitation Law Center (NCOSE).
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Lisa Haba, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Lisa Haba: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Lisa, your law firm, The Haba Law Firm, in coordination with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has now filed a lawsuit against Twitter for alleged child sexual abuse material on the platform, and in a very specific case. I’m wondering if you could outline to me what you’re doing.
Ms. Haba: We have alleged a pivotal lawsuit here where a 13-year-old boy had been targeted by sex traffickers on Snapchat. And through this, the traffickers had sent him some images of what he believed to be a 16-year-old female in the nude and had requested and demanded images in exchange. That quickly turned into exploitation. The traffickers immediately upon receiving an image in return, began threatening this child. They were going to expose him to those people that he cared about—his pastor, his school leaders, his parents, and people in the community that might care about such an image.
The child attempted for a long time to appease the traffickers, acquiescing to their demands in an effort to save his family and save himself from their demands. Ultimately was able to break free when they demanded to meet with him, and he, thankfully, declined to do so. Now, what became rather problematic is that our child had thought he had closed this chapter on this part of his life. He thought he was free from his traffickers and could finally live the life a child should live. He then, at 16-years-old, had a compilation video of his sexual abuse material surface on Twitter.
That material was widespread; it was distributed prolifically on Twitter. By day two, there were 167,000 views of that pornographic image of this child. He became suicidal. He became very, very upset, of course, that this was happening to him. About January of last year, his mother found out. Through the support of his parents, he was able to contact Twitter. He was able to reach out to them and demand that they take this illegal sexual abuse material down off their platform.
Twitter, surprisingly, not only really didn’t respond at the beginning with much more than an acknowledgment of receiving the complaint. Then Twitter turned around after several days and wanted proof of age and proof of identity. So our child sent their Florida driver’s license to Twitter and said, “Look, this is me, this is my license, this is my age, I’m still a minor, please take down this illegal material.”
Twitter waited several more days before finally saying a devastating comment to our child, “We don’t find this to be a violation of our policies, and we’re going to take no further action.” So as I’m sure you can imagine, the family was horrified. This material never came off the Web until finally the Department of Homeland Security stepped in and was able to finally remove it after nine days of it being disseminated.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s an incredible story. I understand that Twitter actually has a zero tolerance policy on child sexual abuse material.
Ms. Haba: What’s interesting is they do. Their words say the right things. Their words say that they have a zero tolerance policy, but their actions speak differently. When our client asked them to take down the exact material that they proclaim to preclude, they refused to act. That’s basically the essence of this lawsuit.
Mr. Jekielek: I have to ask here, is there any reason? Why do you think they might have been mistaken here?
Ms. Haba: It’s an interesting question, but I cannot presume to know what Twitter’s thought process was behind their refusal to remove illegal material from their platform. I can tell you that, after reviewing the complaint in its entirety, outlining the communications, outlining everything that happened with Twitter, it should have been abundantly apparent to them to take it down and do the socially responsible thing. It’s doing the lawful thing. They instead refused to act. So Twitter certainly was profiting off the exploitation of John Doe.
Mr. Jekielek: How exactly did Twitter allegedly profit from having this video shown 167,000 times? I believe that’s what you said?
Ms. Haba: It’s a great question. So we’ve outlined in our complaint the profit model that Twitter follows, and it appears from our research and what we understand Twitter profits primarily in two main ways. One is their advertising model. When you go through a feed on Twitter, they’ll interlace it with different targeted advertising throughout that feed. Every single time those ads are clicked on or viewed or what have you, there’s profit to be made by Twitter.
Then the other way is through data licensing on Twitter. That, of course, comes through people being on the platform, tweeting things, retweeting things, and viewing them. So every single time that there is a tweet that’s put on Twitter, there are really those two opportunities for profit to be made. So that is what has helped Twitter become a billion-dollar business allowing them to profit from each of the tweets that are put up.
Mr. Jekielek: So it’s not that they’re profiting around this specific one intentionally. It’s just a by-product of their business that they allowed it to be up.
Ms. Haba: That’s correct.
Mr. Jekielek: The other question is, we’ve talked a lot on this show about Section 230 protections for Twitter. Does that factor into this case, or how does it factor into this case?
Ms. Haba: It’s going to be interesting to see what Twitter’s response is going to be. They very well could allege that. To date, they have not. But we do note that one thing that makes our case unique is that there was a new law passed in 2018, called FOSTA [Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act], which is basically an exception to 230 that says that if you are directly profiting or benefiting from human trafficking, that that is not necessarily a guaranteed immunity for the big tech platforms.
In the alternative, as this case moves forward, we’re interested to look at the fact that 230 is certainly an interpretation that our courts have broadly interpreted over the years. That broad interpretation—the question really becomes, is it too broad? Is it too far reaching? Or is it smaller? If you and I were to go out there and trade child pornography, both of us would be in trouble with law enforcement, and [inaudible] immediately.
But if you do it through a social network, all of a sudden, because it’s online, that suddenly becomes immune? That doesn’t really seem to make a lot of sense. So we’re looking very carefully, and we plan to argue very heavily that Section 230 was never intended to give criminals immunity from any kind of liability. It never was intended to protect sex trafficking of any kind. Suffice to say that there has been, based on our investigation, a massive amount of child pornography on Twitter’s platform that is openly being distributed, traded, and disseminated among its users.
Mr. Jekielek: Is this distributed in plain sight? Is that what you’re saying?
Ms. Haba: It is, and actually the very image that we’re describing, the compilation video of John Doe, just by way of example, literally had commentary underneath it saying things like, “Isn’t this a child? Both those boys are children.” There was commentary that was so obvious right in the platform.
Our investigation—this is outlined in our complaint as well—looked into how Twitter is able to disseminate this material. And for example, there are known hashtags out there that are directly linked to child pornography and the distribution of it. Those hashtags not only are operational on Twitter, but if you type them into the search bar, it offers suggested phrases to help you find it more efficiently.
I’ve seen lines of tweets back and forth offering things as blatant as, “I’ve got ages 12 to 14. Who here has 8 to 10? Great, let’s connect and share our imagery.” So it’s very obvious and very blatant what’s happening. When you look at the incredible quantity of material of that nature and how easy it is to find on the platform if you know the right hashtags, it’s horrifying.
Mr. Jekielek: So how does this work exactly? For example, you said that this started on Snapchat, right?
Ms. Haba: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: So Snapchat’s actually an interesting platform. Ostensibly, these are fleeting moments that are shown. So I guess that makes the young people that are using it feel a lot more secure, I suppose, in their anonymity or something like that. How did this alleged trafficker actually figure out to contact this John Doe?
Ms. Haba: It’s a great question. I don’t know that we can answer right now exactly what was in the mind of the traffickers at the time that they exploited this child. But I can tell you that just from looking at sex trafficking, in my experience, and working with many victims of this heinous crime, sex traffickers don’t have a formula for targeting. The only thing that’s consistent in who they target is vulnerability.
So every child at the age of 13 is suffering from the normal things that children suffer from. They’re going through puberty, they’re entering adolescence, they’re trying to identify themselves and find their own self-image. There’s always going to be different aspects of social challenges and the normal things that teenagers deal with. That doesn’t mean that this child came from a broken home. This doesn’t mean that this child came from a problematic background.
In fact, he had quite the opposite. He had a very stable home. He had very good grades. He was a very good student and had a lot going for him. But it really illustrates that every child who is exposed to the internet is potentially exposed to traffickers. I would encourage every parent out there to heavily monitor who their children are talking to online because even though Snapchat makes the images “go away,” you can capture those images through so many different mechanisms. It’s such a false sense of security for children to think that you can say something or send an image and it’s gone.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s really kind of incredible, and frankly, scary to myself and a lot of our viewership to hear that this sort of thing can happen. By the way, has the alleged sex trafficker been identified?
Ms. Haba: There was an investigation mounted by the Department of Homeland Security into this. Unfortunately, they were not able to identify the exact trafficker, even after a robust investigation. So hopefully, as this case progresses, if that is able to be found, that trafficker can be brought to justice.
Mr. Jekielek: Because they used images of someone. Presumably, it wasn’t the actual person sending the photos, so there are multiple victims here from the looks of it, right?
Ms. Haba: Absolutely. There are two individuals that were involved in the images sent pertaining to our lawsuit. Then of course, we don’t know if the images of the female that were sent to my client were stock photos. We don’t know if they were from an adult victim or a juvenile victim. But they certainly were used in the perpetuation of this crime.
Mr. Jekielek: Lisa, so basically, this starts with some kind of grooming, right? There’s this development of a relationship that happens online. And the victim that’s being targeted, they don’t understand that the person on the other side is targeting them. They think that they’re a peer or something like this. Is that right?
Ms. Haba: It is. It’s an interesting question because the short answer is not simple. Grooming is a very elaborate and complex process. The psychology of victimization is well-documented, and there are actually books online. If a person wanted to learn how to manipulate a child into the world of sex trafficking, you can actually go buy books online that are written about exactly how to do that, which is horrifying.
So through the victimization of a child, it’s a slow process, and it’s a long game, if you will. A trafficker doesn’t usually just start off day one and say, “Hey, come work for me, do horrible things.” They start by building a relationship. So maybe that relationship would be, “Please come and let me talk to you about your day,” or, “Let me talk to you about what’s going on in your life. Your parents don’t understand you. Well, maybe I do. You’re having trouble at school? Well, I’m here for you.”
It’s amazing. I’ve seen traffickers take years building that relationship so that when they ask to meet at the back end of it, it doesn’t feel to that child that they’re talking to a stranger. It feels like they’re talking to a friend. So the “stranger danger” that we all warn our children about in their mind doesn’t apply. Children often don’t associate that on the one hand, just because you’ve never met this person doesn’t mean that they’re still a stranger. They think they’ve gotten to know this person even though the entire thing was a farce.
Mr. Jekielek: What is their situation now, the mother and the minor? I’m not even sure if they’re a minor now. I guess they still are.
Ms. Haba: The minor child is as well as can be expected. He does have the benefit of having a very strong support system with his family. But he also has been the victim of sex trafficking at age 13 and then was re-victimized horrifically by Twitter’s lack of action and failure to remove his material at 16. So this child has been victimized and re-victimized throughout his adolescence. Obviously, he’s doing everything he can to try to heal from this travesty. But as many people can attest to that have been victims of this world, sometimes healing can be lifelong.
Mr. Jekielek: It must have been a very difficult decision for him to go with this video material to his parents. How did that actually happen?
Ms. Haba: The mother of this child had a very interesting night on January 19, 2020. She received a call from a family friend that basically let her know that her son was talking about suicide with another student. So she pretty much didn’t know what to do other than rush up to her son’s room and try to make sure her son didn’t end his life.
A lot of that came from the fact that this sexual abuse material not only resurfaced and re-victimized him in so many ways, but it started surfacing around his high school, and every single student had seen it, or close to every student. He became the victim of vicious bullying because of that. So his mother intervened, and thankfully was able to be there in time and to support him in the way he needed it.
But January 19, 2020, was probably the first day that his parents really understood what was happening and got involved in this. I think that was very telling because we filed this lawsuit on January 20, 2021. It really marked the one year anniversary of when this child began reclaiming his life and began asserting that he was no longer going to be a victim, but he was going to be a survivor. He was going to stand up not only for what’s right, but he was going to stand up against Twitter to say, “What you did to me was wrong, and you re-victimized me in this case.”
Mr. Jekielek: This was just, obviously, very recently filed. What is the status of the case now?
Ms. Haba: Currently, we have filed a lawsuit. We have served the lawsuit on Twitter, and we are now awaiting their response. Standardly, in these types of cases, you’ll either have motions filed by the opposing party, or they’ll answer the complaint, or something of that nature. So we’re waiting to see what that will be.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me a little more about you. This isn’t, as you mentioned, this isn’t the first time you’re actually involved in working on a child sex trafficking case. And obviously, this is an area of interest for you. How did you get into this?
Ms. Haba: What’s interesting is, when I was in law school, I knew that I wanted to work with survivors of sexual abuse. I knew that I wanted to help them find a way through the darkness into the light and be on a path of healing. I didn’t exactly know what direction that would take. I was very fortunate to have an excellent law professor that was very influential on me. I heard a survivor speak that had been through sex trafficking. Then my path became clear that this was a crime that nobody was talking about.
This was an offense against human dignity and against human life that nobody was seeming to really do much about. I wanted to be a part of that fight to change that in this country and in this world. So I became a criminal prosecutor in Florida for the first eight years of my career. In that time, I worked a majority of that time in helping victims of sex trafficking and victims of sexual abuse. Then when I left the State Attorney’s Office in Florida, I went into private practice. We’ve been pursuing civil lawsuits and helping victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse ever since.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s an incredible story, and there are certainly too few people out there like you. Something that comes to mind is, I understand that central Florida is actually kind of like a hotspot for this kind of stuff. And why is that?
Ms. Haba: It’s a great question. We actually get asked that all the time, and you’re absolutely right. We’re third in the country for the numbers for human trafficking being reported to the national hotline. So if you really think about that, we’re up there with New York, and we’re up there with California and sometimes Texas. But what makes Florida unique is a couple of factors. We have Disneyworld right in the middle of our state. Along with Disneyworld, we’ve got Universal, we have all the theme parks. It’s a huge, huge market for tourism.
So when individuals come to Florida for tourism, if you really think about it, for the traffickers, there’s a constant flow of new clientele where you aren’t just dealing with the same people over and over again. Today, it’s this group of tourists. Next week, it’ll be a whole new group of tourists. So if they can properly advertise, often through online channels, to the new group of tourists each week and each month, there is never a shortage of people to buy sex, and unfortunately, to buy children, and in many cases, to buy vulnerable adults, and you name it.
We also have a system in Florida where our network of roads is set up to run a perfect circuit, is one of the words they use. If you were to follow the roads, it’s very easy to run a loop where you can start up here in Atlanta, you can come down the I-95 to Orlando, you can hit Tampa, you can go down the coast all the way to Miami, and you can loop back up again through Lauderdale and hit all of the major tourist sites. That’s not one size fits all, but the network of infrastructure of roads really does cater to running a circuit, so that the victims stay disoriented and the traffickers can maximize their profits.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible how many elements come into this that you don’t even think of. You know what, another question I was just thinking about was, when this sort of online interaction begins, is the goal always ultimately to basically meet and then basically induct that victim into prostitution or something like this?
Ms. Haba: I’m not saying there are not other mechanisms by which they could exploit somebody, but the majority of the time, at least in my experience, yes, that is the ultimate goal. You can make some money through doing online things, but you can make more money through selling a human being in person—what makes sex trafficking so unique here is that it can often be more profitable than arms and drugs. It’s a billion-dollar industry.
The reason it’s so profitable is that if a person were to be a drug dealer, and they were to go buy a brick of cocaine from their supplier, and they were to bring it back, they’ve now done a transaction. They’ve had phone communications, they have a product they need to sell, they’ll cut it up, they’ll sell it, and then they have to go buy more. So there’s this constant moving through commerce that’s going to make them more vulnerable to being infiltrated by law enforcement or being set up or portrayed by other criminals in the organization. That can be a very dangerous place for a criminal to operate.
With sex trafficking, once you buy a victim of sex trafficking—and, of course, they treat people like commodities—once you buy a victim, you can resell that person over and over and over again, and just make continual profit without having to buy a new commodity. So it becomes incredibly lucrative for individuals to sell people instead of just selling product, and they treat the people like their product and move it through commerce.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s just a horrible, horrible situation you’re outlining. How big is this industry in the US?
Ms. Haba: It literally is nationwide. There’s probably not a community that isn’t touched by it. Any place where you will have a human being that wants to buy sex, you will have somebody willing to sell it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of advertisements and a push out there to legalize prostitution. There’s a push out there to understand that boys will be boys and all these things. But the reality is, anytime you have this kind of industry out there, there’s going to be somebody who’s going to try to profit off of it. And traffickers will use that to exploit other human beings and try to make money at their expense.
Mr. Jekielek: Lisa, tell me a little bit of the other cases that you’re involved in. Actually, there’s a quite high profile one, a class action suit against Peter Nygard. Tell me about that.
Ms. Haba: I’ve partnered with another law firm, DiCello Levitt Gutzler. We have, in conjunction, filed a class action lawsuit against fashion mogul Peter Nygard in the Southern District of New York. The essence of the lawsuit is that Peter Nygard, for the last 50 years approximately, has used his fashion business as a front and as a mechanism to run an international sex trafficking ring. We have probably 80 to 90 women at this point who have signed up for the class action lawsuit.
We constantly have a new flow of women calling us, alleging that they too have been hurt, raped, or trafficked by Peter Nygard. We’ve noticed over the course of the last 50 years that he has, in some cases, used extreme violence to commit these unspeakable crimes against the women he rapes. In the last 20 or so years, approximately, he’s actually become more orchestrated.
He owns a property in the Bahamas. He had a network of individuals, very similar to the Epstein model, where he would have what he called his girlfriends, and his girlfriends would be people that he had, at some point, victimized, raped, and manipulated. He had exerted whatever influence and control he could over them to compel them to work for him, whether they wanted to or not. They were mandated to go out and find new victims for him.
He threw things called pamper parties in the Bahamas. A pamper party was, on its surface, a great free event. Come to Nygard Key. You can participate in massages and getting your nails done, you name it. It’ll be a big party that everyone will have a lot of fun at. But in reality, Peter Nygard had a recruiting ground on his own property where he would go out and he would pick his victim for the night, or his victims for the night.
He would either have sex with that person by agreement, or if they weren’t agreeable, in some cases, we have evidence that he was drugging people or his staff was drugging them at his direction. In other instances, there would be a lure—we’ve had in our complaint there are multiple people that were offered modeling opportunities—come up to my room, and let’s talk business, which turned into a violent rape.
I think our youngest victim was 14 years old. Our oldest victim was in her 40’s and then everything in between. So it really seems that Peter Nygard has been, from what we can tell, the most prolific sex offender of our time.
Mr. Jekielek: Has he ever been convicted of anything yet?
Ms. Haba: No. For years, back to 1980, there have been allegations that have been brought forth against him. But they’ve always been dropped or done away with or something has happened of that nature. We have evidence and we’ve alleged in our complaint that he had many of the politicians and police in the Bahamas on his payroll.
We understand that that might have been the case and in other countries as well. But no, Peter Nygard has never been held accountable. This is the first time that’s ever happened. He was actually arrested on a U.S. indictment on December 15, 2020. He is now currently in a Winnipeg jail, and the United States government is seeking extradition of him.
Mr. Jekielek: You have between 80 and 90 participants in this class action lawsuit. These are people who actually came forward. It’s kind of staggering to imagine the actual number of alleged victims here.
Ms. Haba: It is. We suspect it’s in the hundreds, if not the thousands.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you expect will happen next in this case, now, when you’re awaiting this extradition?
Ms. Haba: We’re currently on a stay right now. So what that means for civil law is that under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act under U.S. law, we are paused, if you will, in our case. There will be a point in time, I approximate maybe a year or two from now, when our case can be re-initiated and we can continue. But obviously, during that time, we are still able to take calls and do investigation behind the scenes.
Obviously, during that time, that’s when we’ve had a tremendous number of victims come forward and say, “I too was raped by Peter Nygard. I too was trafficked by Peter Nygard.” So, obviously, the victim pool is not slowing down. It’s amazing how many more women are coming forward now that he’s behind bars, and they finally feel safe.
Mr. Jekielek: These are incredible and horrific stories to hear, Lisa. You’re doing some pretty incredible work and I understand why there are too few people, basically, that take this stuff on. It must take a terrible toll on you.
Ms. Haba: It does, but you know, I have great people around me to help with the support of that, and I have great people working with me to help further this cause, so for all the victims and survivors, it’s truly an honor to work with them.
Mr. Jekielek: Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Ms. Haba: If anybody is a victim of Peter Nygard or is a victim of Twitter, and they wanted to reach out, I’m happy to provide my contact information. Our phone number is 844-422-2529 and our website is www.habalaw.com.
Mr. Jekielek: Lisa Haba, such a pleasure to have you on.
Ms. Haba: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.