WASHINGTON (TND) — In a win for big tech, a ruling by the Supreme Court Thursday sided with social media companies Twitter, Google and Facebook, shielding them from being held liable for aiding and abetting terrorism through content posted to their platforms. The decision, however, did not directly address the larger legal battle hovering over the cases: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media companies from being sued over content posted by users.
The High Court unanimously agreed that Twitter was not legally responsible for a 2017 ISIS attack in Istanbul that killed 39 people — the tragedy at the center of Twitter v. Taamneh. The plaintiffs in the case — the family of a man killed in the attack — argued that the platforms allowed members of the extremist group to have accounts and should be held liable for aiding and abetting but justices disagreed, saying the claims could not be brought under the federal Antiterrorism Act.
In a separate but similar lawsuit, Gonzalez v. Google, the plaintiffs accused YouTube's parent company Google of violating the Antiterrorism Act by allowing ISIS to post videos on the platform and recommending the videos to users via YouTube's algorithms, allegedly radicalizing ISIS members. The suit was brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American exchange student who was among the 130 killed during the 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris.
Justices dismissed the case, saying there is little tying Google to responsibility for 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 court wrote in an unsigned opinion.
It effectively kicks the challenge over Section 230 back to lower courts and puts the ball back in Congress' court, giving them the opportunity to make meaningful reforms to measure. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argue that Section 230 has given big tech companies too much power. Since 2019, lawmakers have formally introduced more than 45 bills to amend or repeal it.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was among lawmakers who responded to the ruling, saying it was “disappointing but unsurprising,” adding that this is not a “get out of jail free” card for social media platforms.
“Enough is enough. Big Tech has woefully failed to regulate itself. Congress must step in, reform Section 230, and remove platforms’ blanket immunity from liability.”
Tech companies fighting to protect Section 230 say they would have no choice but to take extreme positions on content moderation if it was struck down and it could also lead platforms to kick more users off for content that violates their guidelines.
In the opinion on Twitter v. Taamneh, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court said that “none of plaintiffs’ allegations suggest that defendants culpably ‘associate[d themselves] with’ the Reina attack, ‘participate[d] in it as something that [they] wishe[d] to bring about,’ or sought ‘by [their] action to make it succeed.’”
Additionally, the opinion stated that social media companies should not be treated differently than any other space where digital content is created, saying that the “mere creation of their media platforms is no more culpable than the creation of email, cell phones, or the internet generally.”
It brought a sigh of relief for Silicon Valley, which has faced increased scrutiny when it comes to content moderation.
Countless companies, scholars, content creators and civil society organizations who joined with us in this case will be reassured by this result,” Google’s general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado said in a statement to CNN. “We’ll continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.
Despite the decision, the challenges to Section 230 are unlikely to stop anytime soon. President Joe Biden has shown his support for reforming it, saying in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that big tech companies need "to take responsibility for the content they spread."