U.S. Supreme Court Says Google and Twitter Are Not Liable for Content that Incites Terrorism

The Supreme Court of the United States held that Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube are not responsible for allowing ISIS to use their platforms to promote terrorist agendas. The decision was delivered on a lawsuit filed by the family of a Jordanian citizen who was murdered in an ISIS attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul.

The lawsuit alleged claims under the U.S. federal Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allows U.S. citizens to sue anyone “who aids and abets, by knowingly providing substantial assistance, or who conspires with the person who committed such an act of international terrorism.” The Taamneh family claimed that Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s YouTube failed to take action to remove ISIS content from their platforms and in doing so, gave knowing and substantial assistance to ISIS such that they culpably participated in the nightclub attack.

Justice Clarence Thomas, delivering the opinion for a unanimous Court, held that the defendants gave no substantial assistance to ISIS and that the connection between the actions of the defendants and the nightclub attack is too tenuous to give rise to culpability.

The Court also found that the defendants’ design of the algorithms of their platforms, which sorts the content that is “pushed” to each user, does not give rise to culpability. According to the Court, “the algorithms appear agnostic as to the nature of the content, matching any content (including ISIS’ content) with any user who is more likely to view that content. The fact that these algorithms matched some ISIS content with some users thus does not convert defendants’ passive assistance into active abetting. Once the platform and sorting-tool algorithms were up and running, defendants at most allegedly stood back and watched; they are not alleged to have taken any further action with respect to ISIS.”

The decision in the Twitter case impacted the Court’s ruling in a separate case that raised questions about the scope of Section 230 of the U.S. Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA). In Gonzalez v. Google, the family of an American woman murdered in an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015 sued Google. The Gonzalez family alleged that Google’s YouTube assisted the recruitment of volunteers for ISIS by promoting videos inciting terrorism on its platform and thereby aided and abetted the terrorist attack.

Section 230 of the CDA ordinarily bars a claim against online platforms for unlawful content created by users. In Gonzalez v. Google, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Section 230 of the CDA did not apply and did not bar the claims against Google. Relying on its holding in the Taamneh case, the Supreme Court of the United States held that Google cannot be held liable for aiding and abetting the ISIS attack in Paris in 2015. Because Gonzalez’s claim against Google fails on the elements of the cause of action, the Supreme Court declined to discuss the scope of Section 230 of the CDA.

Click here to read the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh.

Click here to read the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzalez v. Google LLC.