Arizona AG Threatens Facebook with ‘Sex Trafficking’ Investigation

Arrest me? Dude, that's totally bogus.(Robert Scoble via Flickr)
Arizona AG Mark Brnovich asks the DOJ to investigate Facebook for the facilitation of human smuggling, while threatening Facebook with a "sex trafficking" investigation.

Will Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich be sending a couple of goons to Menlo Park to slap the cuffs on Mark Zuckerberg and drag the pasty-faced Facebook czar back to Phoenix for arraignment?

Hey, never put anything past a politician running for the U.S. Senate, especially one who can convene a politically-motivated grand jury. Indeed, there’s a not-so-subtle threat at the end of AG Brnovich’s latest, performative letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in which Brno discloses that he’s investigating “sex trafficking” connected to Facebook ads.

AG Brnovich’s letter to Merrick Garland includes a not-so-subtle threat to Facebook.(Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Ostensibly, the letter to Garland — one of many the Arizona Republican has fired off to the Biden administration of late complaining of lax immigration enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border — concerns news reports that folks are using Facebook to strategize sneaking into the country.

As a result, AG Brnovich requests that the DOJ “investigate Facebook’s facilitation of human smuggling at Arizona’s southern border and stop its active encouragement and facilitation of illegal entry.”

Normally, I’d have a better shot of dating Marisa Tomei.

But considering that the U.S. government is attempting to railroad veteran journalists Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the former owners of Backpage.com, and hold them vicariously accountable for illegal acts allegedly connected to adult ads posted by users of the now-defunct classified ads site, it’s not out of the realm of speculation that the feds would attempt something similar in regards to Facebook or any other site that hosts third-party content.

And if the feds are successful in falsely convicting Lacey, Larkin and four co-defendants at their second trial, scheduled to begin February 9, 2022, before federal Judge Susan Brnovich, the AG’s spouse, then anything is possible.

But the AG adds a little lagniappe in his missive to Garland, suggesting that Facebook is involved in the facilitation of sex trafficking, a heinous crime involving either children in commercial sex or women forced into prostitution.

The letter reads:

It is important to note that while the federal government bears the responsibility for prosecuting human smuggling, Arizona is not preempted from prosecuting sex  trafficking crimes. As a national leader in battling sex trafficking, our office is currently pursuing such investigations and prosecutions in every instance where they are warranted, based on ads or postings from Facebook.  To the extent that Facebook  is complicit  in such activity, our office will pursue all legal means to hold the company accountable. We expect the Department of Justice to take an equally firm stance against Facebook’s facilitation of human and sex trafficking.

So far, Facebook has not responded to my requests for comment on the letter.

Now, I should say upfront that I do not believe Facebook is in any way responsible for facilitating human smuggling, sex trafficking, drug running or the low self-esteem of white teenage girls in middle America.

You might as well blame Boeing for 9/11. That’s how absurd that idea is.

But ambitious AGs running for office are dangerous folks, as Lacey and Larkin know. In 2016, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris had both men arrested on a ginned-up pimping rap during her successful campaign for U.S. Senate.

The pimping charges were tossed — twice — by California judges. Harris lacked the authority to pull this stunt, which she knew before she brought the charges. Didn’t stop her from doing it, though.

Nor did it stop politicians and the DOJ from accusing Backpage of complicity in sex trafficking. It’s what drove the push for passage of FOSTA/SESTA and the feds’ takedown of Backpage in 2018.

And the DOJ is still doing this in the case of Lacey and Larkin, though they are not charged with anything involving sex trafficking. In fact, the feds’ persistent false accusations to this effect caused a recent mistrial in the case.

Grand Marnier and Zuck

Yet, the irony here is sweeter than a snifter of Grand Marnier, in no small part because Zuckerberg has long been kissing up to Congress and other government entities in an attempt to placate them, practically begging politicians to regulate social media, in part by gutting Section 230, the 1996 law that enshrines the principle that interactive computer services are not responsible for the posts of their users.

Section 230 staves off civil action and state criminal action, in a bid to allow innovation and free speech, and not bog down internet startups with hellish legal bills. But Facebook is big enough that it apparently believes it can survive any additional government regulation. As for the small fry, c’est la guerre.

According to the FBI, there was just one arrest in Arizona for human trafficking in 2019: involving involuntary servitude, not commercial sex. (via FBI:UCR)

A perfect example of Facebook’s Congressional ass-kissery is what happened in the run-up to the passage of FOSTA/SESTA in 2018, which effectively banned all adult advertising, including personals, from internet platforms based in the U.S. It also created an exception to Section 230 for lawsuits and state criminal action regarding sex trafficking.

Many internet watchdogs opposed the legislation, arguing that it would chill free speech and scatter adult advertising abroad, as it ultimately did, even by the government’s own account.

Initially, the powerful, Facebook-backed internet-lobbying group, the Internet Association, opposed the bill. But in late 2017, it did an about-face and endorsed SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, which was the Senate version of what finally passed, a hybrid of House and Senate legislation known as FOSTA/SESTA.

Backpage was Congress’ whipping boy, used as the argument in favor of passing the bill.  And the IA mightily threw Backpage under the bus, declaring the site evil and worthy of the pit.

“Internet Association member companies are 100 percent committed to the fight against sex trafficking,” the IA said in one 2017 press release. “Criminal actors like Backpage.com must be fully and quickly brought to justice for their horrific crimes. IA supports the goals of Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (S. 1693).”

The same release later added, “We do not have to choose between justice against Backpage.com and protecting legitimate online services. This is not a binary choice.”

FOSTA/SESTA was not used for the Backpage takedown, which happened a few days before President Trump signed FOSTA/SESTA into law. But FOSTA/SESTA could, hypothetically at least, be used against Facebook. The law opened the door to lawsuits and state criminal action against interactive websites in regards to sex trafficking.

Brnovich references this new authority when he states in his letter to Garland that, “Arizona is not preempted from prosecuting  sex trafficking crimes [against interactive websites].”

That was not always the case. In August 2017, AG Brnovich signed a letter, along with 48 other state and territorial AGs, asking Congress to amend Section 230 to give the states the authority to “investigate and prosecute” websites in regards to supposed sex trafficking.

Another irony: The Arizona AG bills his office as “a national leader in battling sex trafficking.”

But that statement is belied by the FBI’s annual report on human trafficking for 2019. Can you guess the number of arrests for human trafficking in Arizona for that year?

One.

But for “involuntary servitude,” NOT “commercial sex acts.”

So where is this deluge of sex trafficking going on? Largely in the extremist, anti-free speech minds of politicians seeking higher office.

When it comes to Facebook, which I’ll admit has many flaws and is worthy of much criticism, I’m reminded of that quote from Winston Churchill, used by the writer Christine Biederman, in a 2019 WIRED cover story about the Backpage case.

In it, Churchill described those he pegged as appeasers of fascism:

“Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”

And Facebook is hoping against all hope it will be the last down the croc’s gullet.

Please also see:
Lacey/Larkin Trial Reset to Feb. 9 as Feds Block Exculpatory DOJ Memos
and
Reason Magazine Blasts ‘The Collapsing Federal Prostitution Case Against Backpage.com’

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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