New Mexico judge grants Mark Zuckerberg’s request to be dropped from child safety lawsuit

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico judge on Thursday granted Mark Zuckerberg’s request to be dropped from a lawsuit that alleges his company has failed to protect young users on its social media platforms from sexual exploitation.

The case is one of many filed by states, school districts and parents against Meta and its platforms over concerns about child exploitation. Beyond courtrooms around the U.S., the issue has been a topic of congressional hearings as lawmakers and parents are growing increasingly concerned about the effects of social media on young people’s lives.

In New Mexico, Attorney General Raúl Torrez sued Meta and Zuckerberg late last year following an undercover online investigation.

While granting Zuckerberg’s request, Judge Bryan Biedscheid dismissed Meta’s motion seeking to dismiss the state’s claims, marking what Torrez described as a crucial step for the case to proceed against the social media giant.

“For decades, Meta Platforms have prevented nearly every legal challenge against them from proceeding,” Torrez said in a statement. “Today, the New Mexico Department of Justice brought that era to an end and is the first case by a state attorney general to raise child sexual exploitation claims, which can now be addressed. All social media platforms that harm their users should be on notice.”

Separately, claims were levied in late October by the attorneys general of 33 states — including California and New York — that Instagram and Facebook include features deliberately designed to hook children and contribute to a youth mental health crisis.

As for Zuckerberg, Biedscheid said he wasn’t persuaded by the state’s arguments that the executive should remain a party to the New Mexico lawsuit, but he noted that could change depending on what evidence is presented as the case against Meta proceeds.

Torrez’s office said it will continue to assess whether Zuckerberg should be named individually in the future.

Attorneys for Meta had argued during the hearing that prosecutors would not be able to establish that the company had specifically directed its activities to New Mexico residents, meaning there would be personal jurisdiction for which the company could be held liable. They said the platforms are available worldwide and that users agree to the terms of service when signing up.

Prosecutors told the judge that New Mexico is not seeking to hold Meta accountable for its content but rather its role in pushing out that content through complex algorithms that proliferate material that can be sensational, addictive and harmful.

The design features and how people interact with them are the issue, said Serena Wheaton, an assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division.

Earlier this month, Torrez announced charges against three men who were accused of using Meta’s social media platforms to target and solicit sex with children. The arrests were the result of a monthslong undercover operation in which the suspects connected with decoy accounts set up by the state Department of Justice.

That investigation began in December around the time the state filed its lawsuit against the company.

At the time of the arrests, Torrez placed blame on Meta executives — including Zuckerberg — and suggested that the company was putting profits above the interests of parents and children.

Meta has disputed those allegations, saying it uses technology to prevent suspicious adults from finding or interacting with children and teens on its apps and that it works with law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting offenders.

As part of New Mexico’s lawsuit, prosecutors say they have uncovered internal documents in which Meta employees estimate about 100,000 children every day are subjected to sexual harassment on the company’s platforms.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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