Supreme Court Keeps Section 230 Precedent Protections Intact

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The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday declined to overturn longtime precedent around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act’s protections for internet platforms. 

In a three-page, unsigned opinion the court declined to answer a core question of an appeal that hoped to hold Google secondarily liable for allegedly aiding and abetting ISIS terrorists through YouTube. Instead, the court remanded the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after it found a companion appeal didn’t present enough evidence to state a claim under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. 

The two appeals — Twitter v. Taamneh et. al. and Gonzalez et. al. v. Google Inc. — were closely watched this session for their potential impact on how and to what extent Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act can shield internet platforms from liability over content created by users. In sending the cases back to the 9th Circuit, the Supreme Court upheld the wide-reaching protections federal courts have historically extended to internet platforms. 

The decisions involve two separate but similar lawsuits brought by the families of people killed by terrorism overseas under the Anti-Terrorism Act that was amended in 2016 to create private causes of action against parties that provide material assistance and aid and abet terrorist conduct abroad.

Twitter v. Taamneh involves the relatives of a man killed in a 2017 shooting in Turkey,  allegedly at the direction of ISIS, in a suit against Twitter, Google and Facebook. The complaint argued since each of the social media platforms had users who were members of ISIS and moderators didn’t remove all content posted by those users, the companies aided and abetted promotion of ISIS’ ideology that eventually inspired the terrorist who killed their relative. The lawsuit was dismissed for failure to state a claim but then reinstated by the 9th Circuit that held the plaintiffs plausibly alleged their claims. 

Gonzalez v. Google was brought by the family of a young woman killed in the 2015 ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris and it claimed that by hosting content created by ISIS and promoting videos through its algorithms, YouTube and its owner Google helped promote ISIS and recruit members and were secondarily liable for the attack. In Gonzalez, the district court dismissed for failing to state a claim. On appeal to the 9th Circuit, the appeals court reinstated most of the claims, but added the defendants were shielded by Section 230. 

Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the two appeals and decide two questions around liability under the Anti-Terrorism Act and the protections of Section 230.

At oral arguments in March, the nine justices of the court grappled with questions around how to separate user speech from platform speech when content is presented through algorithms and the high court appeared hesitant to overturn traditional interpretations of Section 230 that have played a key role in the development of the internet. 

But the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t touch the Section 230 arguments from Gonzalez and instead upheld and applied the 9th Circuit’s ruling in Twitter v. Taamneh that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under the Anti-Terrorism Act. 

In the per curriculum ruling, the court wrote Gonzalez and its companion case both failed to state a claim. “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 opinion explained. “Instead, we vacate the judgment below and remand the case for the Ninth Circuit to consider plaintiffs’ complaint in light of our decision in Twitter.”

In the Twitter ruling, a unanimous court ruled common law and precedent around “aiding and abetting” meant the families didn’t state a plausible complaint. The unanimous opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas reversed the 9th Circuit’s holding. 

In a special concurrence, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson emphasized the two decisions are narrow and leave the door open to “other cases presenting different allegations and different records may lead to different conclusions.” 

Jackson wrote the appeals came to the court at the motion to dismiss stage meaning the court’s ruling was based on the complaints’ allegations, not a court-established factual record. She added the court’s decisions were based on general principles of tort and criminal law, but those principles aren’t universal. “The common-law propositions this Court identifies…do not necessarily translate to other contexts,” Jackson added.

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