WASHINGTON—Today, the United States Supreme Court issued decisions in two major social media cases, Twitter v. Taamneh and Gonzalez v. Google. In Taamneh, the Court held that the social media platforms could not face aiding-and-abetting liability for an ISIS terrorist attack when they had not knowingly assisted in the specific attack. In Gonzalez, the Court declined an opportunity to address questions about the scope of Section 230, reasoning that the case could largely be disposed of on the same grounds as Taamneh. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed amicus briefs in both cases.

The following can be attributed to Anna Diakun, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

The Court correctly recognized in Taamneh that the platforms’ alleged conduct was too attenuated and passive to rise to the level of aiding and abetting. The attack was terrible and tragic, but imposing liability on the platforms in these circumstances would have had far-reaching implications for free speech online. The Court will eventually have to answer some important questions that it avoided in today’s opinions. Questions about the scope of platforms’ immunity under Section 230 are consequential and will certainly come up soon in other cases. 

Twitter v. Taamneh

Relatives of Nawras Alassaf, a victim of the 2017 ISIS attack at a Turkish nightclub, sued Twitter, alleging that, because ISIS had used Twitter to expand its reach, and because Twitter knew that ISIS had done so and had failed to take sufficient countermeasures, Twitter had aided and abetted an act of international terrorism. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit could go forward, holding that an online platform with generalized knowledge that a terrorist organization used its service could be held liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The Supreme Court heard argument on February 22, 2023.

The Knight Institute and six other free expression organizations filed an amicus brief urging the Court to reject the Ninth Circuit’s ruling. The brief argues that an overly expansive interpretation of aiding-and-abetting liability would result in intermediaries—like social media platforms—taking down constitutionally protected speech for fear of legal liability. Read the brief here.

Read today’s Taamneh decision here.

Gonzalez v. Google

Families of those killed in ISIS terrorist attacks sued Google, alleging that it had aided and abetted those attacks by allowing ISIS to post videos to YouTube and by recommending those videos to users through recommendation algorithms. The Ninth Circuit held that Section 230 immunized Google from those claims because YouTube’s recommendation algorithms merely amplified the content at issue but did not “materially contribute” to the alleged illegality. The Supreme Court heard argument on February 21, 2023.

The Knight Institute filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court arguing that recommendation algorithms are crucial to free speech online—even though they can sometimes have pernicious effects—and that categorically excluding them from Section 230 immunity would have devastating consequences. The brief further argues that the statute is best read to immunize platforms for their recommendation algorithms except where they materially contribute—in a manner that goes beyond mere amplification of speech—to the alleged illegality. This reading would immunize platforms for decisions that are inextricable from publication, but not for design, engineering, or other decisions that cause harm. Read the brief here.

Read today’s Gonzalez decision here.

Knight Institute lawyers on the cases include, in addition to Diakun, Jameel Jaffer, Alex Abdo, Scott Wilkens, Alexia Ramirez, and Stacy Livingston.