Supreme Court Unanimously Rejects Efforts to Hold Google, Twitter, and Facebook Responsible for Terrorist Attacks

Supreme Court Unanimously Rejects Efforts to Hold Google, Twitter, and Facebook Responsible for Terrorist Attacks

A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court insulates social media companies from liability regarding use of their platforms by third parties for terrorist efforts. Recently, SCOTUS examined the limits of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“Section 230”), which shields tech companies from liability for content published by users.

In Gonzalez v. Google LLC, the ISIS terrorist group used Google to unleash a set of coordinated attacks across Paris, France, which led to the murder of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen. Google lawyer Lisa Blatt argued that Section 230 makes tech companies immune from legal responsibility for third-party videos that its algorithms recommend. The Gonzalez family lawyer urged the court to narrow these protections as algorithmic recommendations provide an incentive to promote harmful content.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that Section 230 barred most of the Gonzalez family’s claims because Google could not be held liable for third-party content posted by users.  SCOTUS vacated the Ninth Circuit’s contrary ruling and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of SCOTUS’ decision in Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh.

Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh is centered upon a terrorist attack in Istanbul, Turkey, which killed Nawras Alassaf. Alassaf’s family brought suit under 18 U.S.C. § 2333 or the Antiterrorism Act against Facebook, Twitter, and Google (which owns YouTube). Defendants were sued for aiding and abetting ISIS by allowing harmful content on their pages. The parties agreed that algorithms on their pages match any content with any user who is more likely to view that content, and that defendants profit from that content.

The Ninth Circuit allowed the family’s lawsuit to go forward, but SCOTUS reversed that decision. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a unanimous decision for the Court that stated social media platforms are not culpable even if terrorists are able to use them for illegal and reprehensible purposes.

Justice Katanji Brown Jackson wrote in concurrence that even if the Court’s opinion was unanimous in Twitter, there could be other cases presenting different facts that could lead to different conclusions.


Teresa M. Mayer | Paul K. Schrieffer

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