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

New York — 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’

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez speaks during a rally organized by Accountable Tech and Design It For Us to hold tech and social media companies accountable for protecting teens on January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC. 

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

The New Mexico Attorney General's office alleges it found in an investigation of Facebook and Instagram accounts promoting sexualized images of minors.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s office alleges it found in an investigation of Facebook and Instagram accounts promoting sexualized images of minors. 

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.