The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week against the families of terrorism victims in two separate cases in which the plaintiffs accused Google, Twitter and Facebook of “aiding and abetting” attacks by failing to block content promoting terrorism.
The court ruled 9-0 in Twitter v. Taamneh, a case brought by family members of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in a 2017 ISIS attack in Istanbul.
The second case, Gonzalez v. Google, was sent back to a lower court. The plaintiffs asserted that the companies were liable for the death of American college student Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in a café during coordinated ISIS attacks in Paris in 2015.
The May 18 decisions handed a victory to the tech industry by declining to weigh in on the foundational U.S. internet law known as Section 230.
The law, a provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, protects online companies from liability for content posted by their users. It also gives internet companies the ability to remove content without liability.
Of the two cases, Gonzalez v. Google gave the Supreme Court the more direct opportunity to tackle Section 230. However, the court said the suit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs didn’t have a case under the Anti-Terrorism Act. It advised the lower court that there was no need to address Section 230.
Shurat HaDin-Israeli Law Center President Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, one of the attorneys for the Gonzalez family, said, “While we are disappointed that the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge the dangers of Section 230’s blanket immunity for the social media platforms and their facilitation of these vital internet services to designated terrorist organizations, we intend to continue to litigate the case when it is remanded.
“It is clearly understood that platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook will never voluntarily act to self-regulate in any meaningful way that safeguards the lives of innocent people or protects the national security of the U.S. or other democratic states. The terror victims accuse the social media giants of knowingly providing their services to extremist groups like ISIS and Hezbollah and will continue to sue them for the devastation they caused to their families,” she added.
Policymakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties called for an overhaul of Section 230 in the wake of the court’s actions, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Not a get-out-of-jail-free card
“The Justices passed on their chance to clarify that Section 230 is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for online platforms when they cause harm,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the newspaper.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said the court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Google case showed “why we must update the law intended to hold these companies accountable.”
Said Darshan-Leitner, “The battle will now pass to the Congress as well, which can no longer hide on the sidelines. There is bipartisan support to rein in Section 230, and the Gonzalezes and other families of victims intend to press the Congress to amend this antiquated statute that aided in the murder of Noehmi Gonzalez.
“We lawyers see this decision as just another hurdle we need to navigate. It took decades to topple Big Tobacco; we’ll eventually rein in reckless and greed-driven Big Tech as well,” she said.
Republicans and Democrats have concluded that Section 230 gives too much leeway to online companies, though for different reasons. Democrats argue that the provision lets internet platforms avoid responsibility for hate speech and negative content. Republicans say it gives cover for Big Tech to censor conservative voices.
Tech companies argue that revamping Section 230 would lead to a flood of litigation and greater censorship as they block questionable content to avoid the increased liability.