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Alphabet Inc.'s Google escaped claims brought by the family of a victim of the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks when a federal court ruled that it can’t be held liable for allegedly choosing ads to run near YouTube videos by the Islamic State group ( Gonzalez v. Google, Inc. , 2017 BL 379755, N.D. Cal., No. 16-cv-03282-DMR, 10/23/17 ).
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that the claims against Google were barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields websites from liability for third-party content as long as they don’t qualify as content creators themselves. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Google created its own content by allegedly placing ads near the videos.
The case highlights the controversy Google faced earlier this year over ads allegedly running alongside offensive YouTube videos. Google had introduced new features to better flag and remove extremist content on YouTube after a slew of companies in March suspended their ad buying with the company.
Relatives of 26-year-old Nohemi Gonzalez sued Google, Facebook Inc., and Twitter Inc. for allowing the group (IS) to use their sites to recruit fighters and spread propaganda. The plaintiffs later voluntarily dismissed the claims against Facebook and Twitter.
An attorney for the plaintiffs and a Google spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law requests for comment.
The plaintiffs didn’t allege that placing the ads, which were created by third parties, played a role in making the IS videos unlawful, the court said. It cited Fair Housing Council of San Fernando Valley v. Roommates.com LLC, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that a roommate-matching site asking users questions about allegedly discriminatory housing preferences wasn’t protected under Section 230 for the unlawful user responses. Websites that provide neutral tools to carry out allegedly unlawful activity retain their Section 230 immunity—as long as they don’t materially contribute to that activity, the Ninth Circuit said.
The Gonzalez court said the plaintiffs didn’t allege that Google “materially contributed” to the content of the IS videos. “Google’s provision of neutral tools, including targeted advertising, does not equate to content development under section 230, because as currently alleged, the tools do not encourage the posting of unlawful or objectionable material,” the court said.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Google directly contributed to IS’ activities by sharing a percentage of the revenue generated from the ads placed near the videos with the group. Even if those allegations were true, sharing revenue doesn’t make Google a creator or developer of IS video content, the court said.
The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint and granted leave to amend within 14 days.
Excolo Law PLLC represented the plaintiffs. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati PC represented Google.
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