December 5, 2017
Twitter Inc., Facebook Inc., and Alphabet Inc.'s Google escaped claims alleging that they allowed Hamas to use their sites for spreading propaganda, continuing their winning streak in legal battles over content.
Plaintiffs Demetrick Pennie and Rick Zamarripa sued the three companies after five police officers were killed in a 2016 mass shooting in Dallas. They alleged the companies provided material support to Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic political party that has an armed wing, in violation of the federal Anti-Terrorism Act.
The plaintiffs failed to show a connection between the companies’ alleged conduct and the shooting, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held Dec. 4. In addition, a federal online publisher law grants the companies immunity from most, if not all, conduct at issue, the court said. It dismissed the complaint without granting leave to amend.
The case shows the consistency with which courts are applying the internet liability law to shield online publishers—even in highly charged issues. The decision marks the fourth dismissal of complaints this year alleging social media provided services to terrorist groups, Bloomberg Law data show. Ten cases alleging at least one of the three platforms provided material support to terrorism remain active, the data show.
Keith L. Altman, attorney for the plaintiffs and lead counsel at Excolo Law PLLC, told Bloomberg Law Dec. 5 that he intends to appeal the decision. “We expect these issues are so big that they’re not going to get resolved at the trial court level,” he said.
The court said that the plaintiffs’ claims seek to hold the companies liable for content created by others. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes websites from such claims. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the claims don’t depend on the content of the posts but, rather, on the companies’ business of providing online publishing services.
“Plaintiffs explicitly base their claims on the content that Hamas allegedly posts, because absent offending content, there would be no basis for even the frivolous causal connection that Plaintiffs have alleged between Defendants’ services and the Dallas attack,” the court said.
The plaintiffs also asserted that the companies are content creators and fall outside of Section 230 immunity because they place ads next to content created by Hamas. But the court rejected the argument. The court cited its decision in Gonzalez v. Google Inc. , which held that the plaintiffs in that case failed to allege Google’s targeted advertising tools encouraged the posting of unlawful material.
The court declined to address whether Section 230 protected the companies from allegations that it shared advertising revenue with Hamas.
The case is Pennie v. Twitter Inc. , N.D. Cal., No. 17-cv-00230-JCS, 12/4/17 .
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