A California appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit claiming Bay Area software giant Salesforce helped pimps and human traffickers by providing a database and services to a website that featured adult ads.

The suit claimed that a group of 50 plaintiffs, identified as “Jane Does,” were victims of sex trafficking facilitated by website Backpage, including women who were allegedly sold for sex as minors via the site.

Backpage has been shut down by federal authorities, and ex-CEO Carl Ferrer in 2018 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution; several Backpage-related corporate entities pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in money laundering. Backpage co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and four former Backpage employees are charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering in a federal case in Arizona that resulted in a mistrial in September over the prosecution’s conduct.

The lawsuit against Salesforce was first dismissed in March 2020 in San Francisco County Superior Court, on the basis that Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act protects websites from liability for third-party conduct. The recent ruling in the California Court of Appeal’s First Appellate District dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal on the same basis.

Salesforce and Benioff did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s the right conclusion,” said Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University law professor who studies Section 230 issues. “The plaintiffs in this case are alleging that pimps engage in sex trafficking, and that they were helped in doing so by running ads on Backpage, and that Backpage was helped in its operations by Salesforce — the victims are three steps away from Salesforce.”

Goldman noted that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff called for abolition of Section 230 when he attacked Facebook over purported “propaganda” on the social-network site, but Salesforce successfully used that law to get the Jane Does’ lawsuit dismissed.

Courts are struggling to apply Section 230, and a Texas court recently ruled in a different lawsuit against Salesforce, saying that Section 230 may not fully shield the company from legal liability, Goldman said. “It’s a really murky area,” Goldman said. “No single ruling is going to clean it up unless it’s from the Supreme Court.”

A lawyer for the plaintiffs whose firm sued Salesforce in the Texas case said they have not decided yet whether to appeal the ruling. The attorney, Annie McAdams, called rulings upholding Section 230 protections in sex-trafficking cases “a travesty.”