The Supreme Court on Thursday punted the issue of determining when internet companies are protected under a controversial liability shield, instead resolving the case on other grounds.
The justices were considering two lawsuits in which families of terrorist attack victims said Google and Twitter should be held liable for aiding and abetting ISIS, leading to their relatives’ deaths.
Google asserted that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, enacted in 1996 to prevent internet companies from being held liable for content posted by third parties, protected the company from all of the claims.
But rather than wading into the weighty Section 230 dispute — which internet companies say allows them to serve users and offers protection from a deluge of litigation — the court Thursday found neither company had any underlying liability to need the protections.
In the Twitter case, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court that the plaintiffs’ allegations fell “far short of plausibly alleging that defendants aided and abetted the Reina attack.”
That dispute arose after an ISIS-linked attacker killed Nawras Alassaf and 38 other people at an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. Alassaf’s family sued Twitter and other tech platforms, accusing them of not taking enough enforcement action against the terrorist group.
The Google case presented similar facts. The family of U.S. citizen Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed during an 2015 ISIS attack in Paris, sued Google for its purported recommendations of pro-ISIS videos on YouTube.
“Rather, we think it sufficient to acknowledge that much (if not all) of plaintiffs’ complaint seems to fail under either our decision in Twitter or the Ninth Circuit’s unchallenged holdings below. We therefore decline to address the application of §230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion in the Google case.
Google’s general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado said the “countless companies, scholars, content creators and civil society organizations who joined with us in this case will be reassured by this result.”
“We’ll continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet,” Prado added in a statement.
A spokesperson for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The two decisions leave a legal battle over the scope of Section 230 unresolved.
Section 230 protects internet companies, of all sizes, from being held legally responsible for content posted by third parties. The protection has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle, with Democrats largely arguing it allows tech companies to host hate speech and misinformation without consequences and some Republicans alleging it allows tech companies to make content moderation decision with an anti-conservative bias.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson cautioned that Thursday’s rulings were “narrow in important respects” and did not necessarily translate to other contexts.
“Both cases came to this Court at the motion-to-dismiss stage, with no factual record. And the Court’s view of the facts — including its characterizations of the social-media platforms and algorithms at issue — properly rests on the particular allegations in those complaints. Other cases presenting different allegations and different records may lead to different conclusions,” Jackson wrote.
The tech industry argues the provision is essential to keep providing their services for users. In addition to Google and industry groups that represent tech giants, smaller tech companies — often on opposing battle lines from the large companies on other tech policy issues — filed briefs in support of Google in the case.
Supporters argued the provision is especially important in order to protect smaller tech companies which would face even more hurdles if faced with legal fees from litigation.
The industry cheered the court’s decision.
Chris Marchese, litigation center director for NetChoice, which names Google among its association members, called it a “huge win for free speech on the internet.”
“The Court was asked to undermine Section 230—and declined.”
Marchese said in a statement. “With billions of pieces of content added to the internet every day, content moderation is an imperfect—but vital—tool in keeping users safe and the internet functioning. The Supreme Court’s decisions protect free speech online by maintaining Section 230.”
Jess Miers, legal advocacy counsel at Chamber of Progress, which names Google among its corporate partners, said the decision to leave Section 230 “untouched is an unambiguous victory for online speech and content moderation.”
“While the Court might once have had an appetite for reinterpreting decades of Internet law, it was clear from oral arguments that changing Section 230’s interpretation would create more issues than it would solve. Ultimately, the Court made the right decision: Section 230 has made possible the Internet as we know it,” Miers said in a statement.
—Updated at 11:50 a.m.