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Top US court to decide if social media firms can be held liable in Islamic State attacks

Case brings into question legislation that protects companies from any legal responsibility for what users post on their sites
Women display a picture of Nohemi Gonzalez for her funeral service at the Calvary Chapel in Downey, California, on 4 December 2015 (AFP)

The US Supreme Court will be hearing two cases that are seeking to hold social media companies responsible for their role in contributing to militant attacks - which if successful, could set a huge precedent. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether or not social media platforms can be held liable for their users' posts. The court is expected to announce its decision before the court recesses for the summer late next June.

The cases were filed by relatives of victims of attacks in France and Turkey. One of the cases involves Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American who was studying in Paris in 2015. In November of that year, she was one of the people killed in the attack at La Belle Equipe bistro during the attacks claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group. 

Gunmen and bombers targeted the French national stadium, the Bataclan concert hall, restaurants and bars almost simultaneously, killing 130 people and wounding hundreds.

The other case involves Jordanian citizen Nawras Alassaf. He died in the 2017 attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul where a gunman affiliated with IS killed 39 people and wounded 79. Hundreds had been celebrating New Year's eve. 

The families of both victims sued Google (which owns YouTube), Twitter and Facebook, arguing the platforms helped IS grow because the companies did not do enough to curb the attacks and that videos on their platforms helped incite violence and recruit new members. 

Currently, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects companies from any legal responsibility for what users post on their sites. It states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." 

In their petition seeking a Supreme Court review of their case, Gonzalez's family argued: “Videos that users viewed on YouTube were the central manner in which ISIS enlisted support and recruits from areas outside the portions of Syria and Iraq which it controlled. To utilize YouTube in this manner, ISIS established a series of sophisticated recording facilities.”

The complaint alleged that Google officials were aware that its company’s services were assisting IS, even though recommendations are based on computer algorithms. 

Google moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Section 230 barred all of its claims. The district court agreed and the complaint was soon dismissed.

“If this lawsuit is successful, it could be the end of search engines and personalised feeds in the United States,” James Grimmelmann, a professor of digital and information law at Cornell Law School, told Middle East Eye. “The theory presented by the lawsuit is that websites can be sued whenever they ‘recommend’ illegal content to users.”

“If that is true, it is hard to see how a site on the scale of Google or Facebook could possibly monitor all of the content it indexes to detect all of the harmful or dangerous content. The only way to avoid crushing liability would be to shut down.”

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