Supreme Court sides with Twitter, Google in high-stakes cases on social media, terrorism

In a related ruling, the judges left section 230 immunity intact for the time being.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with Google and Twitter in two cases that accused social media of being responsible for terrorist attacks abroad.

Judge Clarence Thomas, in his Twitter opinion, said that the families of the victims of the 2017 ISIS attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey failed to adequately demonstrate that the online platforms “aided and incited” the terrorists in violation of federal law.

“The plaintiffs did not allege that the defendants intentionally provided any significant assistance to the Reina attack or otherwise knowingly participated in the Reina attack – much less that the defendants so pervasively and systemically aided ISIS that they held them responsible for every ISIS attack,” Thomas wrote. .

The court made similar reasoning in an unsigned per curiam opinion on Google, brought by the family of the only American killed in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks by ISIS extremists who posted the footage on Google’s YouTube video platform.

The families of the victims in both cases claimed that social media companies were indirectly complicit in the attacks because they failed to remove extremist content from their platforms, which in turn may have helped radicalization and recruitment of terrorists.

Federal anti-terrorism law allows civil suits against anyone who “aids and incites by knowingly substantially assisting” terrorists to commit an act of violence.

But Justice Thomas, in a narrowly tailored ruling, said the standard had not been met.

“The fact that some miscreants took advantage of these platforms is insufficient to conclude that the defendants knowingly provided substantial assistance and thus aided and abetted the actions of these perpetrators,” he wrote.

The family of Noehmi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old Californian student murdered in the Paris attack, has also asked the court to lift the legal immunity that internet companies enjoy under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act for content posted by third-party users, such as news, images and videos. But the court refused to address the scope of this landmark law, leaving aside the issue.

These decisions are a significant victory for internet companies that have warned that expanding their responsibilities will turn the internet as we know it upside down.

“The Court rightly recognized the narrow stance of these cases and refused to rewrite a key principle of U.S. internet law, the preservation of free speech online and a thriving digital economy,” said Matthew Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association in a statement. “Nobody wants to see extremist content on digital services.” – especially in the services themselves, which constantly review millions of content in real time to promote trust and security and protect users, in accordance with their terms of service.”

Google’s general counsel Halimah DeLAine Prado told ABC News in a statement that while the company is “reassured by this outcome,” it will continue to bolster its plans to “protect free speech online, fight harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.” “. “.

When contacted by ABC News, members of the Gonzalez family declined to comment on the outcome of the case.

Justice Thomas acknowledges that there may be situations where a social media company could be held responsible for some role in a terrorist act, but said the alleged assistance would have to be “more direct, active and meaningful” than simply providing space for groups to most news and videos, as allegedly in these cases.

Some consumer advocates and technology reformers had hoped the Court would help curb the power and influence of social media companies, but that task now rests more in the hands of Congress.

“There is a policy question here on how we can continue to allow these social media companies to function. We don’t want them to be crippled by lawsuits, but we also need to limit some of the ways terrorist groups can facilitate their recruitment,” said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent, lawyer and former associate dean of recruiting at Yale Law School on ABC News Live. . “These companies were built to make money from ad revenue, and they make money from advertising by keeping people on their platforms and active. I think we need to change the incentives to change the landscape.”

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the Court’s refusal to consider Section 230 “disappointing but not surprising.”

“Judges squandered their chance to clarify that Section 230 is not an escape card for online platforms when they cause harm,” Durbin said in a statement. “Enough. Big Tech has woefully failed to regulate. Congress must step in, reform Section 230, and remove platforms’ universal immunity from liability.”

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