February 20 & 21 — Online speech liability

February arguments start off with two of the most high-profile cases this term, concerning liability of social media companies for the content posted on their platforms and their relationship it. (Preview of the following week’s arguments to be posted later.) Scotusblog has a useful introduction and context for this and tomorrow’s case.

70 minutes have been allotted for arguments on both days, but expect them to run quite long and for there to be a substantial line for public (and bar member) seating. (See the page about attending in-person or listening in online.)

Tuesday, Feb 21 — Gonzalez v. Google LLC

Today’s arguments will focus on the scope of the Section 230 immunity for corporations that host user content. The case was filed by family members of victims of terrorist acts, alleging, according to the 9th Circuit ruling, that “social media platforms allowed ISIS to post videos and other content to communicate the terrorist group’s message, to radicalize new recruits, and to generally further its mission. Plaintiffs also claim that Google placed paid advertisements in proximity to ISIS-created content and shared the resulting ad revenue with ISIS.” In the case against Google, which is being reviewed today, the lower courts held that Google was immune by operation of 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1), which provides that “[n]o 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.”

A great deal has been written about Section 230 generally and this case specifically, but I would like to call your attention to an amici brief from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and other civil rights organizations, arguing, among other things, that “[w]hen a publisher materially contributes to a civil rights violation, it loses Section 230 immunity.” I also commend the EPIC amicus brief, which argues for distinguishing between liability for mere re-publishing and active acts of the platform:

Social media sites employ sophisticated algorithms that segment, target, and control users in often harmful ways. The allegations in this case—that Google matches ISIS content to users who are profiled to be most susceptible to the group’s messaging—represent one subset of these algorithmic harms. Many internet companies that deploy harmful products use Section 230 as a shield instead of making their products safer, exactly the opposite of what Section 230’s drafters in- tended. Other companies collect and publish people’s personal information without a care for the accuracy of the information or for individual privacy rights be- cause they believe Section 230 protects them. Unless Section 230 is returned to its original meaning and courts are given a clear way to apply immunity, inter- net companies will continue to act with impunity—to all our detriment.


Wednesday, Feb 22 – Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh

The Ninth Circuit decision relevant yesterday also concerned a suit against Twitter, Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh. But the lower court there did not dismiss the case based on a Section 230 defense but because it held that the allegations were not sufficient to give rise to liability under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA)18 U.S.C. § 2333. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, carefully reviewing each of the liability factors and noting that the complaint alleges that the platform “allowed ISIS accounts and content to remain public even after receiving complaints about ISIS’s use of their platforms,” ultimately holding that “the Taamneh Plaintiffs adequately state a claim for aiding-and-abetting liability.”

And so today’s case concerns: “(1) Whether a defendant that provides generic, widely available services to all its numerous users and ‘regularly’ works to detect and prevent terrorists from using those services ‘knowingly’ provided substantial assistance under 18 U.S.C. § 2333 merely because it allegedly could have taken more ‘meaningful’ or ‘aggressive’ action to prevent such use; and (2) whether a defendant whose generic, widely available services were not used in connection with the specific ‘act of international terrorism’ that injured the plaintiff may be liable for aiding and abetting under Section 2333.”