A family’s tragedy leads to a social media showdown before the US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) – Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old aspiring industrial designer, ventured to Paris to study abroad as a student at California State University in Long Beach. She lost her cellphone, so one day in November 2015, she let her mother, Beatriz, know she was fine with a one-word message on Facebook: “Mom.”

Beatriz answered with one word: “Mimi”, her daughter’s nickname.

“We had this bond,” Beatriz said in an interview. “Just sent me a single word – I understood she was fine, she was fine. By replying, ‘Mimi,’ I was saying, ‘I’m here for whatever you need.’”

Two days after that message exchange, Nohemi died in a hail of bullets from Islamist militants while sitting at a bistro called La Belle Epoque, part of a rampage of shootings and suicide bombings that killed 130 people, with the militant group Islamic State claiming responsibility.

Beatriz Gonzalez is now at the center of a showdown before the US Supreme Court over the scope of federal law that exempts social media platforms from legal responsibility for content posted online by their users. The hearings before the nine judges are scheduled for Tuesday.

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Backed by attorneys who have fought to hold internet companies accountable for actions they allegedly aided and abetted militant groups, the Gonzalez family is suing Alphabet Inc.’s (GOOGL.O) Google LLC for monetary damages because its YouTube -Islamic State content video-sharing service and its algorithms recommended the group’s videos to certain users.

Judges will hear the family’s appeal against a lower court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit, which is based largely on the immunity granted to social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996. You will hear a related case involving Twitter Inc (TWTR). MX) on Wednesday.

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“It’s very important that the law changes,” Beatriz said, adding that a verdict in her favor would not only benefit her family, but “all the people suffering from these attacks, everywhere.”

The lawsuit argued that YouTube’s actions “materially supported” the Islamic State. It was brought under a federal law called the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows Americans to recover damages related to “an act of international terrorism.”

Critics, including Democratic President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, have said Section 230 needs reform given the actions of social media companies in the decades since its passage. The law prohibits treating “interactive computer services” as a “publisher or speaker” of information provided by outside users.

“This court should not undermine a central building block of the modern internet,” Google told the judges in a filing.

“Eliminating the protections of Section 230 would create perverse incentives that could both increase the removal of legal but controversial language on some websites and cause other websites to turn a blind eye to harmful or even illegal content,” she added.


Legal scholars fear that freedom of expression online – with certain content being suppressed – could be eroded if Section 230 were to be weakened.

“This user content may contain information that either side of the political procession might deem important — for example, allegations of sexual harassment or abuse by the police or government policies on vaccines,” said Anupam Chander, a technology regulation expert at Georgetown University’s Law Center.

“This case could really reshape the internet for the next generation,” Chander added.

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The case heard on Wednesday also goes back to a family tragedy. American relatives of a Jordanian named Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in a 2017 nightclub shooting in Istanbul that killed 39 people – with Islamic State again claiming responsibility – accused Twitter in a lawsuit of helping and supporting the group by not monitoring the platform for their accounts or posts.

Twitter is appealing after a lower court allowed that lawsuit, finding the company refused to take “reasonable steps” to prevent Islamic State from using the platform. Google and Meta’s (META.O) Facebook are also defendants but did not officially join Twitter’s appeal.

Twitter said in a Supreme Court filing that it had terminated more than 1.7 million accounts for violating rules on the “threat or encouragement of terrorism.”

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an attorney representing the Gonzalez family, said social media companies can use automated and human means to block militant groups from using their services.

“One thing is very clear,” said Darshan-Leitner. “There should be zero tolerance for terrorism on social media. Terrorist organizations are using social media as a tool they never had before – and cannot do without.”

Beatriz Gonzalez expressed confidence that the judges will be on her side. In her house she keeps her daughter’s ashes and pictures.

“She will always be alive in my heart,” she said. “I will always have her memory — everything she said and did, her whole story — in my heart.”

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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