US Supreme Court shoots down cases on social media liability

Two court decisions represent a victory for internet companies facing scrutiny over user content on their platforms.

The family of a student killed in an ISIL attack stand in front of the US Supreme Court
Family and supporters of Nohemi Gonzalez gather on the steps of the Supreme Court in February, as they presented a case that sought to hold Google liable for hosting content from violent groups [File: Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

The United States Supreme Court has handed a set of victories to internet and social media companies, ruling against or sidestepping claims that the companies can be held liable for the content posted on their sites.

On Thursday, the court unanimously reversed a lower-court decision that allowed a case to proceed involving allegations that Twitter and other platforms had aided and abetted the ISIL (ISIS) armed group.

Also on Thursday, the court sent a similar case against Google back to a lower court, declining to weigh in.

The court’s rulings are a win for tech and social media companies that have faced mounting scrutiny — and, in some cases, questions of liability — for their role in monitoring user-generated content.

The lawsuit against Twitter, filed by the relatives of a man slain in a 2017 ISIL nightclub attack in Turkey, accused the social media of failing to prevent violent groups from using the platform.

In an opinion for the 9-0 majority, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the plaintiffs in the case could “point to no act of encouraging, soliciting or advising” attacks on the part of the social media giant.

“Rather, they essentially portray defendants as bystanders, watching passively as ISIS [ISIL] carried out its nefarious schemes,” he continued. “Such allegations do not state a claim for culpable assistance or participation.”

The Biden administration had previously voiced support for Twitter in the case. It stated that the Anti-Terrorism Act, the federal law at the centre of the case, did not apply to “providing generalized aid to a foreign terrorist organization” with no direct link to an attack.

Nevertheless, the US relatives of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian man murdered during a New Year’s Eve attack in an Istanbul nightclub in 2017, had sought damages, arguing that Twitter had provided “substantial assistance” to an “act of international terrorism”. The attack had left Alassaf and 38 others dead.

A couple, one in a black dress and the other in a tan suit, are seen outside the Supreme Court.
Beatriz Gonzalez and Jose Hernandez, the mother and stepfather of Nohemi Gonzalez, walk outside the US Supreme Court [File: Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The second case on Thursday, sent back to a lower court, alleged that the tech giant Google was also involved in an ISIL attack, this time in Paris in 2015.

There, an American college student, 23-year-old Nohemi Gonzalez, was among the 130 people killed when assailants targetted a series of locations with bombs and firearms, including the Bataclan theatre and France’s national stadium. Gonzalez had been struck by gunfire while sitting at a bistro.

Gonzalez’s family had argued that Google, through its video-sharing platform YouTube, had provided unlawful assistance to ISIL by disseminating its materials.

A lower court had previously thrown out the case, which aimed to decrease the scope of protections offered to internet companies for content posted by users, under a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

In an unsigned opinion on Thursday, the Supreme Court stated there was scant evidence tying Google to the Paris attack.

“We therefore decline to address the application of Section 230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief,” the opinion read.

The Supreme Court had heard arguments in both cases in February, when they had expressed scepticism about their merits.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies