The Supreme Court hands tech giants Alphabet, Meta and Twitter a major Section 230 victory

Photo credit: Anna Sullivan

The Supreme Court gives Big Tech a victory under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This means that social media companies are not liable for the content their users post.

Section 230 was defined in 1996 when the Internet was still in its infancy. It paved the way for an open internet, but also raised questions about a platform’s liability when users share hateful content or their platforms are used as a recruitment tool by terrorist organizations. The judges reviewed two lawsuits in which families of terrorist attack victims proposed that Google and Twitter should be held liable for the deaths of their loved ones in a terrorist attack.

Google said Section 230 of the CDA protects it from liability for all claims. Rather than rule on the merits of the Section 230 protections, the judges found that neither company was required to need the protections. Judge Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court decision that the plaintiff’s allegations in the Twitter case were “far from plausible allegations that the defendants supported and abetted the Reina attack.”

The Twitter case involved Nawras Alassaf’s family sue the company after Alassaf and 38 people were killed in a 2017 terrorist attack on a nightclub in Istanbul. The family accused Twitter of not cracking down on accounts used by IS to recruit new militants to its cause.

The case against Google involved the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a US citizen who was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. They sued Google over ISIS recruitment videos and videos containing terrorist content on YouTube.

“We think it sufficient to acknowledge that a majority (if not all) of the plaintiffs’ claims appear to fall under either our decision in Twitter or the unchallenged opinions of the Ninth Circuit,” the court’s unsigned statement read Google case. “We therefore decline to address the application of Section 230 to a complaint which appears to contain little, if any, plausible claim to a remedy.”

“The countless companies, academics, content creators and civil society organizations that have joined us in this case will be reassured by the outcome,” added Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google’s general counsel. “We will continue our work to protect free speech online, fight harmful content and support businesses and creators who thrive on the internet.”

Both decisions leave the dispute over the scope of Section 230 unresolved. The tech industry argues that the provision is necessary to continue providing a service to users where content is uploaded and hosted on corporate servers.