May 18 (Reuters) – The US Supreme Court on Thursday awarded internet and social media companies a pair of victories, leaving them free from legal protections and refusing to pave the way for victims of attacks by militant groups to sue these companies in an anti-terrorism law proceeding.
Judges in a case involving Google LLC’s video-sharing platform YouTube, both part of Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O), refrained from ruling on an attempt to weaken a federal law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that safeguards Internet companies from lawsuits over user-posted content.
They also protected Twitter Inc in a separate litigation case seeking to enforce a federal law called the Anti-Terrorism Act that allows Americans to recover damages related to “an act of international terrorism.”
In both cases, the families of those killed by Islamist gunmen overseas had sued to attempt to hold internet companies accountable for having militant groups appear on their platforms or for recommending their content.
The judges in a 9-0 decision overturned a lower court ruling that revived a Twitter lawsuit by American relatives of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian killed in a 2017 bombing during New Year’s celebrations at a claimed Istanbul nightclub by the Islamic State militant group.
In the case involving YouTube, the judges have remanded to a lower court a lawsuit filed by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a California college student who was fatally shot in an Islamic State attack in Paris in 2015. The judges have declined to address the scope of section 230, concluding that there was no need to take that step because the family’s claims looked doomed given the Twitter case decision.
Section 230 provides safeguards for “interactive computer services” by ensuring that they cannot be processed for lawful purposes as the “publisher or speaker” of user-provided information.
Calls have come from across the ideological and political spectrum — including Democratic President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump — for a rethink of Section 230 to ensure companies can be held accountable for content on their platforms. This case marked the first time the Supreme Court had examined the scope of Section 230.
‘SAFEGUARD FREE EXPRESSION’
“Countless businesses, scholars, content creators and civil society organizations who have joined us in this case will be reassured by this outcome,” said Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado. “We will continue our work to safeguard freedom of expression online, fight harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the Internet.”
Critics said Section 230 too often prevents platforms from being held liable for real-world harms. Many liberals have condemned misinformation and hate speech on social media. Many conservatives have said that right-wing voices are censored by social media companies under the guise of content moderation.
The massacre at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub killed Alassaf and 38 others. His relatives accused Twitter of aiding and abetting the Islamic State by not checking the platform for the group’s accounts or posts in violation of anti-terrorism law.
Gonzalez’s family argued that YouTube provided illegal assistance to the Islamic State by recommending the group’s content to users. In their brief ruling, the judges wrote that they “refuse to address the application of (section 230) to a complaint that appears to assert few, if any, plausible claims.”
“Even with the best moderation systems out there, a service like Twitter alone can’t screen every single user-generated content with 100% accuracy. User-generated content,” said Chris Marchese, an attorney at NetChoice, a technology industry group that counts Twitter, Meta Platforms Inc (META.O), and Google as members.
The Twitter case hinged on whether the family’s claims sufficiently asserted that the company was knowingly providing “substantial assistance” to an “act of international terrorism” that would have enabled the relatives to maintain their case and seek damages under the anti-terrorism law.
After a judge dismissed the lawsuit, the San Francisco-based US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the proceeding, concluding that Twitter had refused to take “significant steps” to prevent the platform’s use by part of the Islamic State.
Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, author of the Supreme Court ruling, said the allegations made by the plaintiffs were insufficient because they “do not indicate any act of encouragement, solicitation or advice to the commission” of the attack.
“These allegations are therefore a far cry from the kind of pervasive, systemic and guilty assistance to a range of terrorist activities that could be described as aiding and abetting any terrorist act,” Thomas added.
In the Twitter case, the 9th Circuit did not consider whether Section 230 barred the family’s lawsuit. Google and Facebook, also defendants, have not formally joined Twitter’s appeal.
Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Edited by Will Dunham
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