By Mark Sherman
The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Google, Twitter and Facebook in lawsuits seeking to hold them liable for terrorist attacks. But the justices sidestepped the big issue hovering over the cases, the federal law that shields social media companies from being sued over content posted by others.
The justices unanimously rejected a lawsuit alleging that the companies allowed their platforms to be used to aid and abet an attack at a Turkish nightclub that killed 39 people in 2017.
In the case of an American college student who was killed in an Islamic State terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, a unanimous court returned the case to a lower court, but said there appeared to be little, if anything, left of it.
The high court initially took up the Google case to decide whether the companies' legal shield for the social media posts of others, contained in a 1996 law known as Section 230, is too broad.
Instead, though, the court said it was not necessary to reach that issue because there is little tying Google to responsibility for the Paris attack.
“We therefore 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.
The outcome is, at least for now, a victory for the tech industry, which predicted havoc on the internet if Google lost. But the high court remains free to take up the issue in a later case.
"The Court will eventually have to answer some important questions that it avoided in today’s opinions. Questions about the scope of platforms’ immunity under Section 230 are consequential and will certainly come up soon in other cases,” Anna Diakun, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in an emailed statement.
Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado said an email that the company will “continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.”
A lawyer for the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in Paris, expressed disappointment at the outcome, but pledged to fight on. "We lawyers see this decision as just another hurdle we need to navigate. It took decades to topple Big Tobacco, we’ll eventually rein in reckless and greed driven Big Tech as well,” Nitsana Darshan-Leitner wrote in an email.
The families of victims in both attacks asserted that the internet giants did not do enough to prevent their platforms from being used by extremist groups to radicalize and recruit people.
They sued under a federal law that allows Americans injured by a terrorist attack abroad to seek money damages in federal court.
The family of a victim in the bombing of the Reina nightclub in Istanbul claimed that the companies assisted in the growth of the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attack.
But writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas said the family's “claims fall far short of plausibly alleging that defendants aided and abetted the Reina attack.”
In the Paris attack, Gonzalez' family raised similar claims against Google over her killing at a Paris bistro, in an assault also claimed by the Islamic State. That was one of several attacks on a June night in the French capital that left 130 people dead.
The family wants to sue Google for YouTube videos they said helped attract IS recruits and radicalize them. Google owns YouTube.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that most of the claims were barred by the internet immunity law.
The Supreme Court's decision in October to review that ruling set off alarm at Google and other technology companies. “If we undo Section 230, that would break a lot of the internet tools,” Kent Walker, Google's top lawyer, said.
Yelp, Reddit, Microsoft, Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook were among the companies warning that searches for jobs, restaurants and merchandise could be restricted if those social media platforms had to worry about being sued over the recommendations they provide and their users want.
UPDATES: Updates with reactions from lawyers for Google, victim's family.