The Supreme Court on Thursday threw out a claim against Twitter under an anti-terrorism law for platforming ISIS propaganda. More broadly, in a similar appeal against Google, the court passed on deciding the scope of legal protections for internet companies in a case that had huge implications for how the internet functions.
Those huge implications related to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
The decades-old law has been crucial to the creation and functioning of the modern internet but has come under scrutiny (including from Justice Clarence Thomas) for leaving so-called Big Tech companies immune from liability.
That led to concern in Gonzalez v. Google that the justices could upend those liability protections and thus the internet itself. Specifically, the issue was whether Section 230 protects internet platforms from lawsuits stemming from their algorithms.
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The family of Nohemi Gonzalez sued Google after the American was killed in a 2015 ISIS attack in Paris. Her family sued under the Antiterrorism Act, alleging the company aided and abetted terrorism in recommending ISIS videos on YouTube (which Google owns) and thus helping the terror group recruit members, plan attacks and instill fear.
But during the oral argument in February, it didn't sound like the justices were interested in upending Section 230 immunity. The Google case was argued the same week as the similar case against Twitter, which also involved the Antiterrorism Act. That raised the prospect that a ruling against the plaintiffs in that case, Twitter v. Taamneh, could scuttle the Google case. That's because a ruling that the companies aren't liable under the terrorism law would mean the justices wouldn't have to reach the broader Section 230 immunity issue.
And that's basically what happened on Thursday, with the justices ruling in favor of Twitter and then, citing that ruling, siding with Google.
In a unanimous opinion by Thomas in the Twitter case, the court called the allegations "insufficient" to establish the company aided and abetted ISIS. Then in a short, unsigned opinion in the Google case, the court noted that the allegations in there were "materially identical to those at issue in Twitter" and that the complaint "likewise fails to state such a claim."
That enabled the justices to get around the immunity issue in the Google case, where the justices wrote in that unsigned opinion that they "decline to address the application of §230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief." The Google case is sent back to a lower court for further consideration.