The Supreme Court on Thursday left untouched a sweeping immunity law for internet companies known as Section 230 and sided with social media companies in cases of liability for content on their platforms.
Legal experts say that the two cases, Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh, could result in the judges effectively rewriting one of the central laws underpinning the modern internet before Congress.
But the Supreme Court has taken a more restrained approach, and the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups weighing in on the cases say the rulings avoid stifling free speech online.
“The Court will eventually have to answer some important questions that it avoided in today’s opinions,” Anna Diakun, staff attorney at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a news release. “Questions about the scope of immunity of platforms under Section 230 are consequential and will surely arise soon in other cases.”
Lawsuits have begun by family members of victims of terrorist attacks who want to hold tech companies responsible for the content on their platforms.
The justices, in an unsigned opinion in the Google case, declined to evaluate Section 230, which generally prevents providers from being liable for third-party information — a provision that the some members of Congress sought action.
Family members in that case argued that YouTube’s recommendations, made by algorithms, helped the terrorist group ISIS grow and fueled the deadly 2015 attack that killed Nohemi Gonzalez.
The court found that the lawsuit against the social media giant appears to state “little, if any, credible claim for relief.”
And in a separate opinion in the Twitter case, the country’s highest court ruled in favor of the social media company in a case over whether it could be held liable because a terrorist group used the website to obtain information. funding and recruiting members.
The family of Nawras Alassaf, a victim of the 2017 nightclub attack in Istanbul, argued that Twitter should face litigation under the Antiterrorism Act because it knew an Islamic State terrorist group was using the platform. of it and did not do enough to stop them.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the unanimous opinion, said the plaintiffs’ allegations were insufficient to establish that the defendants “aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack.”
Thomas acknowledges that bad actors like ISIS are able to use platforms for terrible purposes, but he writes that the same can be true for cell phones, email or the internet in general.
“However, we generally do not think that internet or cell service providers are liable simply for providing their services to the public at large,” Thomas wrote. “We also do not think that such providers are commonly depicted as aiding and abetting, for example, illegal drug deals brokered over cell phones – whether the provider’s conference call or parts of video call facilitates sales.”
And in this case, Thomas writes, there is no allegation that the platforms “do more than send information to billions of people, many of whom use the platforms for interactions that previously took place through mail, on the phone or in public places.”
“The fact that some bad actors took advantage of these platforms is not enough to state a claim that the defendants knowingly provided substantial assistance and thus aided and abetted the acts of the offenders. ,” Thomas wrote.
A contrary holding “would effectively hold any type of communications provider liable for any type of wrongful act simply because it knew that wrongdoers were using its services and failed to stop them,” wrote Thomas.
Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU National Security Project, said in a press release that the decisions should be applauded.
“Twitter and other apps are home to a lot of protected speech,” Toomey said. “And it will be harmful if those platforms use censorship to avoid more cases of their users’ posts.”
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