The Supreme Court on Monday dealt with the politically contentious issue of whether tech companies should have immunity from problematic content posted by users, and agreed to hear a case alleging YouTube had a hand in the killing of an American woman Aided and facilitated the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris.
The family of Nohemi Gonzalez, one of 130 people killed in a series of linked attacks by the militant Muslim group, argued that YouTube’s active role in recommending videos overcame the liability protections for Internet companies that Congress approved in 1996 as part of communications have imposed decency law.
The provision, Section 230 of the Act, states that internet companies are not liable for content posted by users. It has come under scrutiny from right and left in recent years, with conservatives claiming companies are inappropriately censoring content and liberals saying social media companies are spreading dangerous right-wing rhetoric. The provision leaves companies free to decide whether to remove specific content and does not require them to be politically neutral.
Gonzalez was a 23-year-old college student studying in France when she was killed while eating at a restaurant during the wave of attacks that also targeted the Bataclan concert hall.
Her family is trying to sue Google-owned YouTube for allegedly allowing ISIS to spread its message. The lawsuit targets YouTube’s use of algorithms to suggest videos to users based on content they’ve previously watched. YouTube’s active role goes beyond the kind of behavior that Congress sought to protect with Section 230, the family’s attorneys claim. They say in court filings that the company “knowingly allowed ISIS to post hundreds of radicalizing videos inciting violence on YouTube,” which helped the group recruit supporters, some of whom then carried out terrorist attacks. YouTube’s video recommendations were key to spreading ISIS’s message, lawyers say. Plaintiffs do not allege that YouTube played a direct role in the killing.
Gonzalez’s relatives, who filed their lawsuit in 2016 in federal court in Northern California, hope to pursue claims that YouTube violated a federal law called the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows people to sue people or organizations that commit terrorist attacks “support and support”. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit but was revived by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a June 2021 decision that also resolved similar cases brought by the families of other terrorist attacks against technology companies.
Google’s attorneys urged the court not to hear the Gonzalez case, saying in part that the lawsuit was likely to fail regardless of whether Section 230 applies or not.
The Supreme Court has previously refused to include Section 230 cases, although Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas has criticized it, citing the market power and influence of tech giants.
Another related issue is likely to be brought to the Supreme Court over a law passed by Republicans in Texas to prevent social media companies from banning users who make inflammatory political comments. On September 16, a federal appeals court upheld the law, which the Supreme Court prevented from enacting in May.
In a separate step, the court also said it would hear a related appeal from Twitter over whether the company could be held liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The same appeals court that heard the Gonzalez case revived complaints from relatives of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian national who was killed in an Islamist attack in Istanbul in 2017. In this case, the issue of Section 230 immunity had not yet been addressed.