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He prosecuted child sex predators. Now, he’s going after Meta for allegedly enabling them

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When Raúl Torrez, then a young prosecutor in a rural New Mexico, was preparing one of his first child abuse cases, he went to his father for advice.

Torrez expected his dad, a career prosecutor, to offer some tips about preparing evidence or addressing the jury. Instead, Presiliano Torrez asked: “Have you met this little boy?”

“He really had me focus on thinking about the impact on this child,” the younger Torrez said, recalling the case against the father of an infant suffering from shaken baby syndrome.

The guidance changed the way Raúl Torrez thought about his work as a prosecutor. His dad had “made it clear that the work I was doing, especially in that space, was to try and give voice to people that didn’t have the abilities to go and advocate for themselves,” he said.

Now, Torrez is applying that same focus as he takes on a powerful new opponent in court: Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Less than a year into his new role as New Mexico’s attorney general, Torrez in December filed a lawsuit accusing Meta of creating a “breeding ground” for child predators and exposing young users to sexually explicit material. The complaint alleges that Meta employees have for years raised alarms that children may be at risk of sexual abuse on its platforms, but that the company has failed to adequately address the issue (Meta has firmly pushed back on the claims and says it has more than 30 safety and well-being tools for teens and parents).

Meta, along with other major social media companies, faces growing scrutiny over the safety of young users on its platforms. Lawmakers, parents and online safety advocates have raised concerns about the impact of social media on teens’ mental health, body image and overall wellbeing. But of the several lawsuits filed against Meta over child safety in recent years, none have focused as pointedly as Torrez’s case on alleged child sexual exploitation.

It’s a case that in some ways has been years in the making, based on Torrez’s experience prosecuting child pornographers and sexual predators and learning about the tools they frequently use to carry out those crimes.

Still, Torrez faces a tough road: Meta is among the richest companies in the world. And Big Tech in general has proven a formidable opponent thanks to unique legal protections for online platforms. But with proposed legislation to address social media and child safety stalled for years, some online safety advocates see the courts as their best hope to make progress.

“As a prosecutor, and as a father, I am very concerned about the way in which our digital economy and social media platforms have been allowed to evolve in ways that are just so obviously dangerous to kids,” Torrez told CNN in an interview last month in Washington, DC, on the eve of a Senate subcommittee hearing with Zuckerberg and other social media leaders about potential harms from their platforms to young users.

Torrez’s lawsuit seeks an order blocking Meta from “engaging in unfair, unconscionable, or deceptive practices.” A ruling against Meta could also be an indicator that other big tech firms could be successfully sued for similar issues — and that there might be a workaround to the powerful law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media platforms from being held liable for content posted by their users.

“I do think there’s precedent here” for using the court for corporate accountability, said Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee whose 2021 whistleblower disclosure helped bring public awareness to the risks to young people from social media. “We didn’t pass a law … for tobacco. We didn’t do it for opiates. In both of those cases, (progress) came through lawsuits.”

Meta declined to comment for this story.

‘In the business of trying to protect’

Torrez was born and raised in Albuquerque and left to study government at Harvard. He later earned degrees at the London School of Economics and Stanford Law School.

After Harvard, Torrez briefly worked for the tech startup GovWorks, which went bankrupt when the dot.com bubble burst in the early 2000s. He said his experience with Silicon Valley’s culture then continues to influence his work, adding that “the culture oftentimes lends itself to this cavalier attitude about overcoming the next technological challenge or attracting a new investor … and moral and ethical and legal considerations are oftentimes not a priority.”

In 2009, Torrez took a White House fellowship in the Obama administration, where he advised the US deputy attorney general on issues such as reducing southwest border violence and cracking down on drug cartels.

He went on to work as an assistant US attorney in his home state, where he prosecuted dozens of cases related to internet crimes against children and sexual abuse. In some cases, Torrez said he volunteered to take child abuse cases and to visit safe houses to conduct interviews with child victims.

“If you’re an adult or you’re a business owner or you’re somebody that has access to resources, you can go find a lawyer,” Torrez said. “If you’re an abused child and your parents have harmed you or somebody that you count on has not protected you, you need somebody to step in.”

As district attorney for Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, Torrez worked with a nonprofit called New Mexico Victim’s Rights Project to try to improve the experience for victims in the courtroom — especially children — and in some cases to allow victims to have their own representation in the courtroom.

“It’s unusual for many attorneys to want to have a third-party attorney in the courtroom,” said the group’s executive director, Linda Atkinson. “But with [Torrez], I don’t see an ego like I have with other attorneys.”

Among the other actions Torrez has taken in his first year as the state’s top prosecutor is rebranding his office as the New Mexico Department of Justice, from the Attorney General’s Office.

“What we’re really trying to do is to signal … that we are in the business of trying to protect,” Torrez said. “And that this is an institution that will be looking out to give voice and perspective to people and to stakeholders that oftentimes aren’t heard, either in government or in corporate boardrooms.”

Taking on Meta

Although Meta is far from the only online platform used by criminals, Torrez’s lawsuit against the social media giant was borne in part out of his experience prosecuting sex crimes against children.

“I had been aware for a number of years that we had both adult offenders and … child victims who had been approached and contacted,” through Meta’s platforms, Torrez said. But it wasn’t until his team started investigating the company that he says he realized the scale of the alleged issue.

Mark Zuckerberg apologizes to families harmed by social media during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 31, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters via CNN Newsource)

By the company’s own accounting, an estimated 100,000 children received sexual harassment on its platform each day in 2021, according to an internal Meta document cited in an unredacted version of the New Mexico complaint last month. (Meta said the unredacted complaint “mischaracterizes our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”)

Investigators in Torrez’s office created multiple fake Facebook and Instagram profiles posing as young teens, which the suit alleges were served sexually suggestive content and, in some cases, urged to send pornographic content of themselves.

One of the fake accounts belonged to a fictional 13-year-old girl named Issa Bee. The account listed Bee’s birth year as 2002, which would make her 21 years old in the company’s systems, to “avoid having to create a children’s Facebook profile.” But it posted about things like losing a baby tooth and the first day of 7th grade and mentioned her age as 13 in private messages, according to the complaint.

The account received comments appearing to be from adult men “telling Issa they love her and calling her beautiful, sexy, or gorgeous,” as well as messages “filled with pictures and videos of genitalia,” the complaint states.

“I’m looking for a sugar baby to spoil with $5000 for your weekly allowance via PayPal just text me (hi daddy) if you’re interested,” one man said on Facebook Messenger to the Issa Bee account, according to the complaint.

Meta has pushed back on the claims in Torrez’s lawsuit and cited its various existing efforts to protect young users.

“We use sophisticated technology, hire child safety experts, report content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and share information and tools with other companies and law enforcement, including state attorneys general, to help root out predators,” Meta spokesperson Nkechi Nneji said in a statement in December.

The company said in a December blog post that it had launched technology to proactively detect and disable accounts displaying suspicious behaviors and that it formed a Child Safety Task Force. Meta also says it has removed hundreds of thousands of accounts, groups and devices for violating its child safety policies.

In January — after Torrez’s lawsuit was filed and ahead of the Senate committee hearing on online youth safety — Meta rolled out additional youth safety features, including restricting adults over the age of 19 from messaging teens who don’t follow them.

Ann Olivarius, senior partner at the law firm McAlister Olivarius who has worked on cases related to sexual abuse and exploitation, said similar cases against other internet firms have not been successful because of the power of Section 230 protections.

But she said that if New Mexico can “prove their case, it means that maybe section 230 will be amended, and at least there will be carve outs, there’ll be exceptions, for porn, for trafficking, for rape, for child abuse, for gender violence.”

A ‘cancerous effect’ on victims

New Mexico’s suit against Meta came two months after a group of 33 state attorneys general filed a separate complaint against Meta, alleging that the company’s platforms have harmed minors and contributed to a mental health crisis in the United States. Meta said in response to the multi-suit complaint that it is committed to “providing teens with safe, positive experiences online.”

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez speaks during a rally organized by Accountable Tech and Design It For Us. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Accountable Tech)

Torrez opted not to join that case but rather pursued a separate action because he says he felt the alleged child sexual exploitation risks were “misunderstood” and deserved individual attention.

“Because of my experience and the capabilities of my office, we were uniquely positioned to put together an undercover operation and really pull the curtain back on the scale of the harm,” he said.

Torrez said he sees his effort to fight alleged child abuses on Meta’s platforms as part of a larger effort to make New Mexico safer.

The state frequently ranks low on measures of youth well-being: it’s among the US states with the highest child poverty rates, per the Census Bureau. High school graduation rates in New Mexico are also among the lowest in the country, according to US News and World Report.

“If we don’t highlight and find ways to prevent this type of harm, it has a cancerous effect,” Torrez said. “Almost all of the hands-on abusers that I encountered in my time as a prosecutor were themselves abused.”

He added: “We have to break that cycle, both by holding individual offenders accountable, but by also holding corporate leaders accountable if they allow that kind of behavior to manifest itself in any community.”

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