Supreme Court rules in favor of Twitter and Google, avoiding the issue of Section 230 for now

On Thursday, the Supreme Court resolved two adjacent cases aiming to hold social platforms liable for dangerous content. The pair of cases, Twitter v. Taamneh and Gonzalez v. Google, both sought to hold tech platforms accountable for hosting content from the Islamic State that promoted the terrorist organization in connection to violent attacks.

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the former case, determining that Twitter did not aid and abet the Islamic State when the group attacked a Turkish nightclub in 2017. The case hinged on whether an anti-terrorism law could be applied to open up online platforms to liability.

Justice Thomas delivered the court's opinion:

The nexus between defendants and the Reina [nightclub] attack is far removed. As alleged by plaintiffs, defendants designed virtual platforms and knowingly failed to do “enough” to remove ISIS-affiliated users and ISIS-related content—out of hundreds of millions of users worldwide and an immense ocean of content—from their platforms. Yet, plaintiffs have failed to allege that defendants intentionally provided any substantial aid to the Reina attack or otherwise consciously participated in the Reina attack—much less that defendants so pervasively and systemically assisted ISIS as to render them liable for every ISIS attack.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Twitter v. Taamneh was applied to Gonzalez v. Google, a related case it was examining. "Since we hold that the complaint in that case fails to state a claim for aiding and abetting under §2333(d)(2), it appears to follow that the complaint here likewise fails to state such a claim," the court wrote.

Twitter v. Taamneh sought to fault Twitter for a deadly terrorist attack resulting in the death of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed after an Islamic State gunman opened fire in an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. In Gonzalez v. Google, the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a victim of the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris, argued that Google should be liable for terrorist content promoted on YouTube that preceded the attack.

Depending on how the Supreme Court handled it, the Gonzalez v. Google case in particular had the potential to change legal interpretations of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, weakening the law shielding tech companies from liability for content uploaded by their users. Because the court decided that the tech companies were not liable for the Islamic State's actions under existing anti-terrorism law, it did not delve further into reexamining Section 230's protections around those issues.

"I appreciate the Supreme Court's thoughtful rulings that even without Section 230, plaintiffs would not have won their lawsuits," Oregon senator Ron Wyden, one of Section 230's authors, said of the ruling. "As is the case with a majority of suits blocked on 230 grounds, the First Amendment or an inability to prove the underlying claims would lead to the same result."

While the Supreme Court could still revisit Section 230 down the road, this pair of cases won't be the vehicle for opening that particular can of worms.