back to article Salesforce to face trial after software used by Backpage 'to track sex traffickers, pimps, johns on social media'

Salesforce should face trial after its software was allegedly used by Backpage.com to track sex traffickers, pimps, and their johns online, a judge has ruled. The SaaS CRM giant was accused of a whole host of wrongdoing in a civil lawsuit [PDF] filed last year in southern Texas. Insisting the allegations were unfounded, …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    And who's next, the power company?

    The people pushing the Backpage prosecution have had their targeting system off for a while now. This is really becoming about threatening and shaking down any business that dares to defy the mob when these activists park them on some companies lawn. While I respect the judges decision to allow part of the case to proceed I hope the Salesforce lawyers eat the plaintiffs and their attorneys for lunch. I'd pay the plaintiffs more sympathy considering the issues at the core of this, but the people behind this have consistently gone after the highest profile targets instead of the worst offenders. Both Craigslist and Backpage had paid content teams pulling down ads for actual underage and trafficking victims, and provided support to law enforcement to get actual convictions. The activists actions also helped shutdown the network of sites that women were using to protect them from harm by providing a database of dangerous or abusive johns. They activists sued unsuccessfully over and over, and in most cases the operators were eventually successfully silenced that way.

    These policies may have allowed them to gain media visibility and settlement money, but they have gotten vulnerable people killed in the process, and that's not something they should get a pass on.

    Backpage is unique for the majors as they made the mistake of communicating back and forth with the people taking out ads in ways that undercut their position as a neutral ad platform, which they could have maintained. Instead their support reps got caught on record "helping" people re-work copy to meet their content policies. That made them liable as well, and in that regard good riddance. That said there are still hundreds of smaller, sleazier, and more exploitative adult personals sites that have been churning out ads this whole time. Some even made contributions to the anti-Craigslist and Backpage legal efforts to help wipe out their rivals. Perhaps those sites should be a priority, instead of going after the back office service providers of a site that was already shut down for years.

    Salesforce provides an online CRM database, which its customers fill. This isn't even a section 230 issue in the manner of Craigslist or the other sites that have actually been taken down, which are publishing publicly accessible information. These people want to be able to punitively force 3rd parties with no direct or specific involvement beyond the fact they are a business and offer a service to the public at large, one that is NOT part of the production or publication of the actual offending companies criminal enterprise. By their standard the plaintiffs could go after Dell or the power company. There is some case for allowing suit against web hosting or entities supporting the publishing of these adult listings, but a CRM database for internal use by staff isn't like an AWS or Rackspace instance(and they aggressively cancel those kinds of customers already) that is potentially part of the publication infrastructure of the offending ads.

    We'll see what comes of this in trial eventually, and Salesforce can afford to fight it at least. Unless there is an email chain showing actual knowledge of the criminal use of their CRM system this should be a loss for the plaintiffs. Salesforce shouldn't be obliged to take a customer like Backpage, but they shouldn't be drug into court over it either. If the public want to put pressure on them there are plenty of (and effective) ways that don't include the dangerous idea of using the courts go after tertiary parties with no actual involvement in a criminal enterprise.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: And who's next, the power company?

      The prosecutions you mention aren't something I've been aware of until now. However, if previous ones have been as misguided as you say then I hope that Salesforce raise these issues as part of their defence. It shouldn't be necessary - as you say, unless there's a chain proving guilty knowledge on Salesforce's part they're simply selling a neutral product, although I'm not sure that matters much in US courts.

      Perhaps, however, these people should go after Google. A quick check on soc.genealogy.medieval shows that there are still pimp postings on Usenet there and they always seem to come from gmail.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: And who's next, the power company?

        Yeah, wow, Usenet. I stuck thinks out for a long while, but the vile KP spam got out of hand. My old client software let me filter things up to a point, but it was abandonware when I started using it. Gave up eventually. Haven't thought about checking the feeds there in almost a decade, when some friends were gushing about "discovering" it before moving on to Mega. Sadly, all the pirates have kept the servers going but most of the discussions had died on the vine along time ago.

        Thankfully it's architecture is built in a way that section 320 is mostly an inconvenience. It's fully decentralized, open, and has no long term memory. Nothing to target to shut it down that can't be replaced faster then you can remove it, or parked on a bulletproof host. Flip side is it's totally unsecure, though at least wanabe hitmen and creepers also get themselves busted on there too.

        Tor services being the newer alternative of course.

        That's the rub with this lawsuit strategy, that it just punishes companies maintaining a veneer of legitimacy, which means the ones who are actually trying to moderate their postings, and report underage postings to law enforcement. Getting rid of companies in those tiers weather legitimate(Craigslist, which won't even list personals ads anymore if I remember correctly) and grey market like the "hookup" focused dating apps or Backpage. Shutting down whoever is most popular isn't going to stop prostitution or or other "adult" services, but it does force people onto other platforms. Do these people even grasp that records on Salesforce will be turned over to the police at their request. Instead they are trying to drive everything into the dark.

        As a result every online dating profile I have ever posted has generated hundreds of fake replies, either from outright con artists, or people who have no interest in going on a date that does not have a generous exchange of folding papers attached to it. As a result there are still fake massage parlors all over the country, which subjects the legitimate therapists to a constant stream of harassment and suspicion, as well as creating a dangerous, potentially lethal, work environment. And Tor is hiding genuinely terrible things that they will never be able to shut down with a lawsuit.

        There isn't any ethical standard in either activism or the legal system that says "First do no harm".

  2. Tron

    "You are all guilty. Prepare to be judged." - Judge Dredd.

    I'm pretty sure some fairly dodgy characters have used Internet Explorer over the years to access some shocking websites. Isn't it time Microsoft's staff were all herded off to the big house.

    And then there is the Royal Mail. Poison pen letters, blackmail threats, even letter bombs. They don't sprout legs and walk to their victims. If that's not aiding and abetting, I don't know what is.

    1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

      Re: "You are all guilty. Prepare to be judged." - Judge Dredd.

      I'm going after the Council for building and maintaining (albeit minimally) the roads that my burglar came here on.

      1. Zimmer

        Re: "You are all guilty. Prepare to be judged." - Judge Dredd.

        ...and don't forget Ford, for the car he came in....

        1. stiine Silver badge

          Re: "You are all guilty. Prepare to be judged." - Judge Dredd.

          And the petrol they used to get there from that enabling petrol station and Royal Dutch Shell.

    2. Winkypop Silver badge

      Re: "You are all guilty. Prepare to be judged." - Judge Dredd.

      I’m suing the Cretaceous Period for ending the dinosaurs and later allowing mankind to emerge!!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "You are all guilty. Prepare to be judged." - Judge Dredd.

      "And then there is the Royal Mail"

      They are ok as under the "carrier" provisions they aren't responsible for what people put in letters (same principle that FB, Twitter, etc use to say they aren't responsible to posts due to extension of this ot internet platforms in the US).

      However, in the UK (at least) its always said that in a libel case everyone involved in the distribution of the libel from a journalist who writes the article to the paper boy who delivered the paper is liable to be sued .... that's why when people like Maxwell and Goldsmith used to sue Private Eye for libel the newspaper/magazine distributors were always co-defendants (though, of course, they would have had indemniity arrangements with the Eye so that any damages against them would be covered by the Eye). And when Lord McAlpine won his libel against Sally Bercow he required all the people who'd gleefully retweeted something that had matched their political prejudices to make a charitable donation in lieu of being summonsed to court for distributing the libel.

  3. Danny Boyd

    There's something wrong with Texas

    Eastern Texas is the haven for patent trolls, now southern Texas becomes the home to unbridled absurdity. What's that about Texan courts? Are they all malicious, or totally incompetent, or criminally insane?

    My cousin went totally bonkers and hung himself. Let me sue the company that produced the rope! Right, I'm going to Texas.

    Mr. Doe was caught (in Texas) while attempting the burglary. Said he: "Why accusing me? My lock-picks are made from steel made by company X, blame them!" So they did.

    Oh Lord, I've never could imagine such an idiocy! I understand, of course, that not all the judges are Einsteins, but one would expect at least **some** sense in a judge.

    Surely, the case will be thrown out on higher appeals, but still... What's that about Texan courts?

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: There's something wrong with Texas

      Nothing wrong there. The Texans have hit on a way of turning their courts into an exportable service. That's not crazy, it's smart.

    2. msobkow Silver badge

      Re: There's something wrong with Texas

      That's what happens when an entire state marries its cousins...

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: There's something wrong with Texas

      one would expect at least **some** sense in a judge

      Judges (in the US) are constrained by the law, precedent, and a vast body of procedural regulation. While there are certainly many cases where judges can and do toss obviously-bogus cases due to any of a variety of prima facie flaws, there are also many cases where that's simply not an available option. In this case the judge has found grounds to remove several of the charges. He didn't just rubber-stamp the complaint.

      Also, I'm not sure this case is all that cut and dried under existing US law, though of course IANAL. I don't know why the article mentions S.230, which as far as I can see (and I've read a fair bit about it, as well as the section itself) isn't even vaguely applicable. In recent decades US legislation and jurisprudence has endorsed a rather sweeping view of guilt by association – as seen in the rampant abuse of forfeiture, for example – and even a judge who has grave reservations about that has to take it into account when deciding whether a suit can be dismissed.

  4. viscount

    "Anonymous plaintiffs" seems weird. Are they underage?

    1. katrinab Silver badge

      They are victims of sexual trafficking, and yes, the whole point of the lawsuit is that some of them are underage.

      They would be granted anonymity in England as well.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Real plaintifs are the lawyers anyway.

      What are the odds that underage victims of forced prostitution thought to themselves "Hey, forget my brutal pimp, or the parents who sold me out, Salesforce is the real problem here. Lets sue them for providing tertiary services!"

      The victims were just cherry picked to meet the firms aims. A more cynical person might suggest that ambulance chasers were exploiting minor victims and their families and re-victimizing them in the process, further conditioning them to a cycle of abuse.

      That can make them very hard to reach when they need actual support, and if these lawyers lose, what happens to the plaintiffs? Out on the street again if no one else can step up to help them.

  5. Ace2 Bronze badge

    Hanen - pure crackpot

    Thanks Rumpy!

  6. nintendoeats Silver badge

    Gizmondo

    Every time, EVERY TIME, I read about salesforce, I have to do a double take. I have to carefully re-read Carl Ferrer's name, to remind myself that he isn't Carl Freer (the more legal half of the Gizmondo duo).

  7. msobkow Silver badge

    Only in the Police State of America would a vendor be held responsible for what its *customer* does with a product.

    What's next? Suing gun manufacturers because their weapons are used by murderers? How about suing the vehicle manufacturers for producing cars and trucks that can get in accidents?

    Sanity and the US parted ways COMPLETELY when they brought in the Orange Menace, and apparently it is NOT returning without some SERIOUS psychotherapy...

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