Supreme Court Dismisses Claims of Google and Twitter Aiding Terrorism

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  • On Thursday, SCOTUS dismissed two separate cases, Twitter v. Taamneh and Gonzalez v. Google, that alleged the companies helped ISIS in terrorist activities as the algorithms on their platforms promoted incendiary posts and videos.
  • In the case of Twitter v. Taamneh, the court unanimously rejected the plea for accountability from Twitter, arguing that the microblogging platform did not aid and abet terrorism from ISIS.
  • Gonzalez v. Google also evoked a similar judgment. The court interpreted the allegations, in this case, to be “materially identical” to those in Twitter v. Taamneh.

This week, U.S. tech companies breathed a sigh of relief after the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) declined to hold them accountable for the content posted by users on social media or other platforms they own. The unsigned opinion from SCOTUS even pertains to the content posted by terrorist groups and promotes terror activities, recruitment, etc.

On Thursday, SCOTUS dismissed two separate cases, Twitter v. Taamneh and Gonzalez v. Google, that alleged the companies helped ISIS in terrorist activities. Plaintiffs demanded accountability for the third-party posts and, in turn, demanded limiting the powers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In the case of Twitter v. Taamneh, the court unanimously rejected the plea for accountability from Twitter, arguing that the microblogging platform did not aid and abet terrorism from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) when members of the group attacked a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey in 2017 and killed 39 people, including Nawras Alassaf, a U.S. citizen.

“They [plaintiffs] were allegedly injured by a terrorist attack carried out by ISIS. But plaintiffs are not suing ISIS. Instead, they have brought suit against three of the largest social media companies in the world — Facebook, Twitter (the petitioner), and Google (which owns YouTube) — for allegedly aiding and abetting ISIS. As plaintiffs allege, ISIS has used the defendants’ social media platforms to recruit new terrorists and to raise funds for terrorism,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in conclusion.

“Defendants allegedly knew that ISIS was using their platforms but failed to stop it from doing so. Plaintiffs accordingly seek to hold Facebook, Twitter, and Google liable for the terrorist attack that allegedly injured them. We conclude, however, that the plaintiffs’ allegations are insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack.”

As such, the plaintiff’s (family of Alassaf) allegation that failing to do “enough” to remove ISIS-affiliated users and ISIS-related content from their platforms differs from substantially aiding the attack or consciously participating in it. “The concepts of aiding and abetting and substantial assistance do not lend themselves to crisp, bright-line distinctions,” Justice Thomas added.

Passed in 1996, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects tech companies from civil and criminal litigation. It precludes the ownership of third-party content from platforms and offers immunity.

The Supreme Court stated the following:

“It might be that bad actors like ISIS are able to use platforms like defendants’ for illegal — and sometimes terrible — ends. But the same could be said of cell phones, email, or the internet generally. Yet, we generally do not think that internet or cell service providers incur culpability merely for providing their services to the public writ large. Nor do we think such providers would normally be described as aiding and abetting.”

See More: Is Responsible AI a Technology Issue or a Business Issue?

The Case of Gonzalez vs. Google Evokes Similar Judgment

The case of Gonzalez v. Google evoked a similar judgment. The court interpreted the allegations, in this case, to be “materially identical” to those in Twitter v. Taamneh.

In Gonzalez v. Google, the plaintiffs (the family of the 23-year-old student Nohemi Gonzalez, one of the 130 people killed in the 2015 Paris attacks) argued Google’s direct and secondary liability as the owner of YouTube for aided and abetting and conspiring with ISIS by approving ISIS videos for advertisements and then sharing proceeds with ISIS through YouTube’s revenue-sharing system.

Gonzalez’s family claims that YouTube’s algorithm promoted ISIS recruitment videos. In a statement significantly shorter than the one given for Twitter v. Taamneh, the court questioned the viability of the claims stated in Gonzalez v. Google.

However, despite the dismissive and discouraging tone of the decision based on the Twitter case, the plaintiffs (Gonzalez family) can still appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, tech groups and the sector, in general, have applauded the Supreme Court’s decision. Google took to Twitter to post the following:

Countless companies, scholars, creators and civil society groups who joined with us in this case will be reassured by this result. We’ll continue to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.

— Google Public Policy (@googlepubpolicy) May 18, 2023Opens a new window

The non-profit digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) supported the court’s ruling. “We are pleased that the court did not address or weaken Section 230, which remains an essential part of the architecture of the modern internet and will continue to enable user access to online platforms,” stated EFF civil liberties director David Greene to multiple publishers. 

“We also are pleased that the Court found that an online service cannot be liable for terrorist attacks merely because their services are generally used by terrorist organizations the same way they are used by millions of organizations around the globe,” Greene added.

Chris Marchese, director of the trade association NetChoice Litigation Center also commended the ruling. “This is a huge win for free speech on the internet,” said Marchese. “The court was asked to undermine Section 230 — and declined.”

“With billions of pieces of content added to the internet every day, content moderation is an imperfect — but vital — tool in keeping users safe and the internet functioning. The Supreme Court’s decisions protect free speech online by maintaining Section 230.”

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