The Supreme Court hands Big Tech a win via Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It means social media companies aren’t liable for the content their users post.
Section 230 was defined in 1996, when the internet was still in its infancy. It paved the way for an open internet, but it has also surfaced questions about a platform’s liabilities when users are sharing hateful content or their platforms are used as recruiting tools by terrorist organizations. Justices considered two lawsuits in which families of terrorist attack victims suggested Google and Twitter should be held liable for their relatives’ death in a terrorist attack.
Google said Section 230 of the CDA protects it from being liable on all claims. Rather than decide the merits of the Section 230 protections, the justices found that neither company had any liability to need the protections. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court decision that in the Twitter case, the plaintiff’s allegations fell “far short of plausibly alleging that defendants aided and abetted the Reina attack.”
The Twitter case involved Nawras Alassaf’s family suing the company after Alassaf and 38 people died in a nightclub terrorist attack in 2017 in Istanbul. The family accused Twitter of not taking action against accounts used by ISIS to recruit new militants to its cause.
The case against Google involved the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. They sued Google over ISIS recruitment videos and pro-terrorist content videos on YouTube.
“We think it sufficient to acknowledge that much (if not all) of plaintiffs’ complaint seems to fall under either our decision in Twitter or the Ninth Circuit’s unchallenged holdings below,” reads the court’s unsigned opinion in the Google case. “We therefore decline to address the application of §230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief.”
“Countless companies, scholars, content creators, and civil society organizations who joined with us, in this case, will be reassured by the result,” adds Google’s general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado. “We’ll continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.”
Both decisions leave the legal battle over the scope of Section 230 unresolved. The tech industry argues that the provision is necessary to continue providing a service for users where content is uploaded and hosted on company servers.