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Supreme Court sides with social media companies in suits by families of terror victims

SCOTUS: Twitter not liable for terrorist use
Supreme Court sides with Twitter in case about terrorist use of social media platform 06:56

Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday sidestepped a ruling that could have limited the scope of a federal law that serves as a powerful shield for internet companies, delivering a victory for the platforms who have said the law, known as Section 230, has helped the internet flourish.

In an unsigned opinion in the case known as Gonzalez v. Google, the high court said it declined to address the application of the law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to a "complaint that appears to state little, if any plausible claim for
relief," and sent the case back to the lower court.

The dispute stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student who was among the 129 people killed in Paris by ISIS terrorists in November 2015, against Google, which owns YouTube, in 2016. The Gonzalez family alleged the tech giant aided and abetted ISIS in violation of a federal anti-terrorism statute by recommending videos posted by the terror group to users.

The battle marked the first time the Supreme Court considered the scope of the Section 230, which protects internet companies from liability over content posted by third parties, and allows platforms to remove objectionable content.

In a second, similar case against Twitter, the court sided with the platform and other social media companies in a legal dispute brought by the family of Nawrs Alassaf, who was killed in a 2017 terrorist attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, by Abdulkadir Masharipov, who is alleged to have committed the attack at the direction of ISIS.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled the family failed to state a claim under a federal law that allows U.S. nationals who have been injured in an international act of terrorism to sue for damages. The law, the Anti-Terrorism Act, allows victims of terror attacks to sue those who aided and abetted the attacks.

"The nexus between defendants and the Reina attack is far removed," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court. "As alleged by plaintiffs, defendants designed virtual platforms and knowingly failed to do 'enough' to remove ISIS-affiliated users and ISIS-related content — out of hundreds of millions of users worldwide and an immense ocean of content — from their platforms."

He continued: "Yet, plaintiffs have failed to allege that defendants intentionally provided any substantial aid to the Reina attack or otherwise consciously participated in the Reina attack — much less that defendants so pervasively and systemically assisted ISIS as to render them liable for every ISIS attack."

The allegations, the unanimous court found in the case, Twitter v. Taamneh, "are insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack."

In that legal battle involving Twitter, the Alassaf family sought to hold Twitter, Facebook and Google liable for aiding and abetting the attack at the Reina nightclub. A federal district court sided with the tech companies, but the 9th Circuit reversed and allowed the suit to proceed. The appeals court found Twitter could be secondarily liable under federal law for "knowingly" assisting an act of international terrorisms, even though its services were not use in connection with the attack or by the perpetrators.

The Supreme Court, however, said the "key question is whether [the social media companies] gave such knowing and substantial assistance to ISIS that they culpably participated in the Reina attack. The allegations here fall short of that showing."

The 9th Circuit, Thomas wrote, "went astray through a series of missteps that, together, obscured the essence of aiding-and-abetting liability."

The Supreme Court cited its decision in the case against Twitter that came in response to the Reina nightclub attack in its unsigned opinion involving the other social media companies and Section 230.

In its opinion, the court said that in light of its opinion in Twitter v. Taamneh, "it has become clear that plaintiffs' complaint — independent of Section 230 — states little if any claim for relief."

Since we hold that the complaint in that case fails to state a claim for aiding and abetting under [the Anti-Terrorism Act], it appears to follow that the complaint here likewise fails to state such a claim," the court said.

The dispute brought by the Gonzalez family was closely watched given the implications of a decision impacting the scope of Section 230. The question before the justices in the case was whether the law immunizes platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter when they make targeted recommendations of information to users.

Google had prevailed in early court proceedings, with a federal district court in California and then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit finding the tech giant was protected under Section 230 and immune from liability.

But with its decision Thursday, the court vacated the 9th Circuit's ruling and sent the case back to consider the complaint in light of its ruling in the similar Twitter case.

During arguments in February, the justices acknowledged the challenges of applying a law passed more than 25 years ago to the current landscape of the internet, where social media platforms have flourished and highly complex algorithms use an array of factors to predict the content that will be of most interest to users.

Free speech organizations praised the pair of decisions, with the ACLU saying they maintain free speech online.

"Twitter and other apps are home to an immense amount of protected speech, and it would be devastating if those platforms resorted to censorship to avoid a deluge of lawsuits over their users' posts," said Patrick Toomey, deputy director of ACLU's National Security Project, in a statement. "Today's decisions should be commended for recognizing that the rules we apply to the internet should foster free expression, not suppress it."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said it is pleased the Supreme Court left untouched Section 230 given the role it's played in shaping the modern internet and found an online service cannot be held liable because their services are used by terrorist organizations.

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