The Supreme Court recently sidestepped the ruling on the scope of internet company immunity from lawsuits over user content. The court did not decide the legal question regarding whether YouTube’s liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act safeguarded its alleged conduct in suggesting videos promoting violent militant Islam.
Instead, the court ruled unanimously in a related case involving Twitter that claims against internet companies under the Anti-Terrorism Act could not be brought in the first place. As a result, both the YouTube and Twitter lawsuits will likely be dismissed without addressing the Section 230 issues.
Supreme Court Rules
The YouTube lawsuit involved allegations that the platform was liable for suggesting videos promoting violent militant Islam, and it was specifically related to the killing of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student, in the 2015 Paris attacks carried out by the Islamic State terrorist group.
The court’s ruling in the Twitter case, which involved similar allegations of aiding and abetting the spread of militant Islamist ideology, affected the outcome of the YouTube case. The court found that the relatives of a Jordanian citizen killed in a terrorist attack could not pursue claims against Twitter, Google, and Facebook under the Anti-Terrorism Act. Consequently, it is unlikely that Gonzalez’s family will be able to pursue their claim.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Twitter case rendered the Section 230 immunity question moot. The court stated that the allegations in the YouTube case were “materially identical” to those in the Twitter case, and since the claims in the Twitter case failed, it appeared that the YouTube case also failed to state a plausible claim. Therefore, the court declined to address the application of Section 230 to the YouTube complaint.
Impact of Supreme Court Decision on YouTube and Twitter Lawsuits
The tech industry closely watched the outcome of the YouTube case because recommendations and algorithms are prevalent in various online services, not just YouTube. Platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter rely on recommendation engines to determine what users see, departing from chronological feeds.
The potential reform of Section 230 is an area where President Joe Biden and some Republican critics agree, although they differ in their reasoning and approach
. Conservatives argue that companies censor content inappropriately, while liberals claim that social media companies are not doing enough to combat dangerous right-wing rhetoric. While the Supreme Court has a conservative majority, how it would approach the issue remains unclear.
The YouTube lawsuit was filed in 2016 by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in the Paris attacks. The family alleges that YouTube helped ISIS spread its message by using algorithms to suggest videos based on users’ previously viewed content.
Supreme Court’s Avoidance of Section 230
They argue that YouTube’s active role goes beyond the scope of protection intended by Congress in Section 230. The lawsuit seeks to hold YouTube accountable under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which permits legal action against entities that aid and abet terrorist acts.
Initially, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit based on Section 230, and this decision was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June 2021, which also resolved similar cases involving families of other terrorist attack victims.
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Court Sends YouTube and Twitter Cases Back for Reconsideration
The Twitter case involved the family of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in an ISIS-affiliated attack in Istanbul in 2017. The family argued that without the active assistance of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, ISIS’s message and recruiting efforts would not have spread as widely. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Twitter case found the family’s allegations insufficient to establish that the defendants aided and abetted ISIS in the attack.
The court’s decisions in both the YouTube and Twitter cases have implications for lawsuits against tech companies regarding their role in spreading extremist content.