The Supreme Court Avoids Ruling on a Law Shields Internet Companies from Being Sued for What Users Post

On Thursday, the Supreme Court sided with Facebook, Google, and Twitter in lawsuits to hold them liable for terrorist attacks. The justices dodged the big issue of the cases, the federal law protecting social media companies from being sued over content posted by others. 

The justices rejected a lawsuit unanimously alleging that the companies allowed their platforms to abet and aid an attack at a Turkish nightclub that resulted in 39 deaths in 2017. 

In the case of a U.S. college student killed in an Islamic State terrorist attack in 2015 in Paris, a unanimous court sent the case back to a lower court but said there was little, if anything, left of it. 

The Supreme Court initially took up the Google case to decide if the companies’ legal shield for social media posts of others, contained in Section 230, a 1996 law, is too broad.

However, the court said it was unnecessary to reach the issue since there is little linking 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,” wrote the court in an unsigned opinion. 

For now, the outcome is a victory for the tech industry. Havoc online was predicted if Google lost. However, the highest court remains free to take up the issue later. 

“The Court will eventually have to answer some important questions that it avoided in today’s opinions. Questions about the scope of platforms’ immunity under Section 230 are consequential and will certainly come up soon in other cases,” said a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, Anna Diakun, in an emailed statement. 

In an email, Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado said the company will “continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.”

Families of victims maintain internet companies didn’t do enough to prevent extremists

Families of victims in both attacks maintain that the internet companies didn’t do enough to prevent extremist groups from using the platforms to recruit and radicalize people. 

The families sued under federal legislation that allows Americans injured by a terrorist attack overseas to seek monetary damages in federal court. 

The family of a victim in the Istanbul Reina nightclub bombing claimed the companies assisted the growth of the Islamic group, which claimed to be responsible for the attack. 

However, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court that the family’s “claims fall far short of plausibly alleging that defendants aided and abetted the Reina attack.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Internet Immunity Law blocked most claims. 

The decision by the Supreme Court in October to review that ruling set off the alarm at Google and other tech companies. “If we undo Section 230, that will break a lot of the internet tools,” said Google’s top lawyer, Kent Walker. 

Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Craigslist, and Microsoft were among companies warning that searches for merchandise, jobs, and restaurants could be restricted if those social media platforms must worry about being sued over recommendations provided to users.