The Supreme Court ruled with Google and Twitter on Thursday in two liability cases that determined the media companies were not responsible for two terror attacks that resulted in multiple deaths.
- The families of terrorism victims alleged that Google and Twitter had played a role in the attacks on their loved ones.
- “Plaintiffs’ allegations are insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the unanimously decided Twitter case.
- The court’s reasoning was similar in the case against Google.
- Section 230, a law that protects social media platforms from lawsuits related to content posted by their users, was not directly addressed despite requests to limit the law’s reach, The Washington Post reports.
- This law has come under fire in recent years as users on one side have increasingly demanded that social-media companies regulate offensive speech, and others have insisted on absolute free speech.
Why it’s news
Tech companies view the Court ruling as a victory, as they say that a change to Section 230 would result in an onslaught of lawsuits that would prevent any future innovation and crush many popular social-media sites. Big Tech companies, along with smaller ones, have been lobbying against a change to Section 230, The Washington Post reports.
In the case against Google, family members of an exchange student killed in a terror attack in Paris claimed that Google’s YouTube was responsible for promoting terror content that radicalized the attackers. The case against Twitter was similar, as American family members of Nawras Alassaf claimed that Twitter did not sufficiently monitor its platforms for Islamic State-related accounts. In January 2017, Alassaf and 38 others were killed in a terror attack on Reina nightclub in Turkey.
In the filing against Google, the Court was specifically determining whether or not the algorithm was protected under Section 230. While Section 230 explicitly protects tech companies from the content their users post—such as comments or social-media posts—the media company tunes the algorithm.
Tech companies argued that any new interpretation of Section 230 would affect nearly every interaction users have online.
“Countless companies, scholars, content creators, and civil society organizations who joined with us in this case will be reassured by this result,” Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado says in a statement. “We’ll continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.”
Politicians on both sides have spoken against Section 230, especially as lawmakers grow more concerned about the influence of social media and the power that tech companies wield over users, The Washington Post reports.
Democrats are mainly concerned with social media’s propensity to spread false information. They ask that tech companies are held more accountable for promoting content that contains incorrect facts. Republicans’ complaint about Section 230 lies with the protections it offers to companies who remove content and suspend accounts. Users have few options to respond if they feel their content or accounts were removed in error.
In both cases, the plaintiffs based their lawsuits on the Anti-Terrorism Act. This legislation imposes liability if one is found to be responsible for assisting in a terrorist attack. The court had to determine whether or not Google and Twitter had substantially assisted the terrorist group.
In the Twitter case, Thomas wrote that there was insufficient evidence to provide a strong link between the media companies’ action—or inaction—and the terrorist group.
“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 writes. “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.”
While both cases were related to Section 230, the Google case specifically addressed the law. The justices responded with an unsigned decision that says they “decline to address the application of Section 230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief.”