Supreme Court rules in Twitter and YouTube's favor in terrorism liability cases

Section 230 protections for online platforms remain intact for now.


The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has issued two rulings in favor of tech companies that will continue to shield them from liability for what users post on their platforms. In the first case, the justices unanimously agreed that Twitter will not have to contend with claims that it aided and abetted terrorism over tweets that terrorist group ISIS posted.

SCOTUS reversed a lower court decision that allowed a lawsuit against Twitter to proceed after another judge initially dismissed it. The lawsuit was filed by US relatives of Nawras Alassaf, a man who was killed in a 2017 Istanbul attack that was claimed by ISIS. The justices determined that hosting general terrorist speech doesn't create indirect legal responsibility for specific terrorist attacks, as CNN reports. That is likely to make it more difficult for victims of terrorist attacks or their relatives to make a similar case against online platforms in the future.

"To be sure, it might be that bad actors like ISIS are able to use platforms like defendants’ for illegal — and sometimes terrible — ends. But the same could be said of cell phones, email or the internet generally," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court's opinion. "We conclude that plaintiffs’ allegations are insufficient to establish that these defendants aided and abetted ISIS in carrying out the relevant attack.”

The justices also dismissed the case of Gonzalez v. Google, which accused the company of violating US anti-terrorism laws. As such, they left intact a lower court decision to throw out a suit against YouTube brought by the family members of a victim of the 2015 terror attack in Paris. They argued that Section 230 protections should not apply to Google and YouTube in this case, as the latter's algorithms surfaced ISIS videos in recommendations.

"We decline to address the application of Section 230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief," the court wrote in an unsigned opinion. "Instead, we vacate the judgment below and remand the case for Ninth Circuit to consider plaintiffs’ complaint in light of our decision in Twitter.”

Section 230 refers to a clause in the Communications Decency Act of 1996. In essence, it protects online platforms from being liable for what their users post as well as the ability of companies to moderate third-party material.

The clause has faced opposition from both sides of the aisle over the years, with both Democrats and Republicans seeking to reform or scrap it. President Joe Biden claimed during his campaign that he would see Section 230 "revoked, immediately" if he were elected, but that obviously hasn't come to pass. In relation to Gonzalez vs. Google, Biden's administration argued that Section 230 protections don't extend to Google's algorithms, as the clause does not "bar claims based on YouTube’s alleged targeted recommendations of ISIS content."

"Countless companies, scholars, creators and civil society groups who joined with us in this case will be reassured by this result," Google's public policy team said in a statement on Twitter. "We'll continue to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet." Twitter does not have a communications team that can be reached for comment.

Digital rights groups are among those who have welcomed the SCOTUS rulings. “We are pleased that the Court did not address or weaken Section 230, which remains an essential part of the architecture of the modern internet and will continue to enable user access to online platforms," Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties director David Greene said in a statement to Engadget. "We also are pleased that the Court found that an online service cannot be liable for terrorist attacks merely because their services are generally used by terrorist organizations the same way they are used by millions of organizations around the globe.”

“With this decision, free speech online lives to fight another day,” Patrick Toomey, deputy director of ACLU’s National Security Project, said. “Twitter and other apps are home to an immense amount of protected speech, and it would be devastating if those platforms resorted to censorship to avoid a deluge of lawsuits over their users’ posts. Today’s decisions should be commended for recognizing that the rules we apply to the internet should foster free expression, not suppress it.”

Update 5/18 3:05PM ET: Added Google's statement.