WASHINGTON (NewsNation) — The Supreme Court heard another case on Wednesday that could shift the foundations of internet law. Both cases under review this week could change the way big tech companies run and how we use the internet and social media apps.
The core question in both comes down to this: Should tech platforms like Twitter, Facebook or Google be legally or criminally liable for the content their users post?
During arguments at the high court, several justices underscored that there was no evidence linking Twitter, Facebook and Google directly to the 2017 attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul. The family of a man killed in the attack says the companies aided and abetted the attack because they assisted in the growth of the Islamic State group, which claimed responsibility for the attack. A lower court let the lawsuit go forward.
The court’s disposition of Wednesday’s case and a related one it heard a day earlier is important, particularly because the companies have been shielded from liability on the internet, allowing them to grow into the giants they are today.
If the court bars the lawsuit involving the attack in Turkey from going forward it could avoid a major ruling on the companies’ legal immunity. That outcome would leave the current system in place, but also leave open the possibility that the justices could take up the issue again in a later case.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett was among the members of the court who suggested that the suit against the companies lacks the kind of specificity required under a federal anti-terrorism law. Barrett said there would have to be specific allegations in the complaint, “not just general recruitment or radicalizing people.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch, participating remotely for a second straight day because of illness, told a lawyer for the family that he was “struggling with how your complaint lines up with the three requirements of the statute” that the companies knowingly helped a person commit a terrorist act.
The law the case involves is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which allows Americans injured by a terrorist attack abroad to sue for money damages in federal court. U.S. citizens who are family members of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in the Reina nightclub attack, sued Twitter, Facebook and YouTube parent Google under the law.
The case was brought by the family of a man killed in the Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul. They have sued Twitter, Facebook and YouTube parent Google under the terrorism law, arguing that Google, which owns YouTube, should be liable because ISIS radicalized and recruited people worldwide by using those platforms to post videos and propaganda.
Those videos even sometimes came up as suggested content for users.
On the other side, attorneys for Google said the company cannot be held accountable for the actions of its users simply because its algorithm suggests videos or content for them based on their own likes and interests. If tech companies are liable for that, attorneys argued it’ll upend the whole internet structure.
The broader questions about Section 230 were at the center of the case the justices heard Tuesday. In that case, the family of an American college student who was one of 130 people killed in the Paris attacks sued under terrorism law.
The family of Nohemi Gonzalez argued that the Islamic State group used YouTube to spread its message and recruit people to its cause. They said YouTube’s algorithm, which recommends videos to users based on their viewing habits, was critical to the Islamic State group’s growth. Lower courts ruled Section 230 barred the lawsuit.
The Associated Press and Devan Markham contributed to this report.