In a pair of highly anticipated rulings handed down Thursday, the US Supreme Court found that Google and Twitter could not be held liable under anti-terrorism laws for hosting content posted by terrorist groups. The decision was seen as a victory for the technology sector.
In Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a unanimous court, said that the plaintiffs in the original case — the family of a Jordanian national who died in a terrorist attack — had failed to state a claim under which relief could be provided. Thmoas wrote that the anti-terrorism law under which they sued Twitter did not provide for liability in a case where Twitter had merely provided a platform ISIS used.
“Plaintiffs have failed to allege that defendants intentionally provided any substantial aid to the Reina attack or otherwise consciously participated in the…attack — much less that defendants so pervasively and systemically assisted ISIS as to render them liable for every ISIS attack,” Thomas wrote.
The ruling in the Twitter case focused solely on the anti-terrorism law in question — the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act — and did not touch on Section 230, a telecommunications law that bars liability against tech platform providers such as Facebook and Twitter for the content that they host.
Nor were any Section 230 questions discussed in a brief unsigned opinion issued on behalf of the court in Gonzalez v. Google. That decision essentially stated that the reasoning in the Twitter case was substantially similar enough to apply to both cases, with the same result. In that case, the question was whether Google could be held liable for hosting terrorism-related content on YouTube.
“We think it sufficient to acknowledge that much (if not all) of plaintiffs’ complaint seems to fail under either our decision in Twitter or the Ninth Circuit’s unchallenged holdings below,” the court wrote. “We therefore decline to address the application of [Section] 230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief.”
Section 230 has been a major point of contention; tech companies have warned that any weakening of its protections would essentially end social media, forcing Twitter, Facebook and others to shut down for fear of being sued over anything hosted on their platform, or making them abandon moderation altogether. The rulings foreclose on the possibility, for the moment, that the Supreme Court will change the legal landscape around liability for hosted content.