SECTION 230 GETTING IN THE WAY OF SOCIAL MEDIA TERRORISM CLAIMS

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The latest plaintiff to sue social media companies for allegedly supporting terrorism is trying from the start to avoid the online publisher immunity defense.   

Plaintiff Reynaldo Gonzalez, whose daughter was killed in the November 2015 Paris attacks, filed a complaint June 14 against Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. for allowing  the Islamic State Group—known commonly as ISIS—to use their sites to recruit fighters and spread extremist propaganda.  Gonzalez alleged violations of the federal Anti-Terrorism Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2331 et seq.    

“Plaintiffs’ claims are based not upon the content of ISIS’ social media postings, but upon Defendants’ provision of the infrastructure which provides material support to ISIS,” Gonzalez said in the complaint.

Twitter had moved to dismiss a similar claim by Tamara Fields—the widow of another terrorist victim—on the grounds that she sought to hold the social network liable as the publisher of third-party content, in violation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230.  Section 230 protects online publishers against liability for content produced by others, as long as they are performing traditional publisher functions and aren't content providers themselves.

In response to the Section 230 defense, Fields argued that the claim was based on the provision of Twitter accounts to ISIS, not the content of tweets issued from those accounts.

But a federal district judge said he wasn’t convinced that merely opening Twitter accounts was sufficient to state a claim under the Anti-Terrorism Act, Bloomberg Technology reported June 15.

Families of terrorist victims appear to be stuck in a predicament.  They likely can’t hold social media sites responsible for the extremist content ISIS members are transmitting.  But in efforts to avoid the immunity defense, the allegations they can make under the anti-terrorism statute may be too thin.

Gonzalez added an additional allegation that Google-owned YouTube earns revenue from advertisements placed inside or near ISIS YouTube videos.  It remains to be seen whether that will be successful or if it will run afoul of Section 230.

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