Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Twitter, Google, Facebook in Liability Case Over User-Posted Content

The Supreme Court unanimously sided with Twitter, Google, and Facebook, finding in a pair of decisions on May 18 that the Silicon Valley giants are shielded from liability for content posted by users.

The lawsuits arose after deadly Islamic terrorist attacks overseas. Victims’ families argued that the Big Tech companies were liable because they allowed terrorist videos to be posted online or failed to do enough to police the terrorist accounts posting the videos.

Big Tech and its supporters had been deeply concerned that the court could eviscerate Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which generally prevents internet platforms and internet service providers from being held liable for what users say on them. They say the legal provision, sometimes called “the 26 words that created the internet,” has fostered a climate online in which free speech has flourished.

Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have attacked Section 230, calling for it to be repealed, but in the twin rulings, the Supreme Court sidestepped the Section 230 issue, much to the relief of the tech companies.

During oral arguments on Feb. 21, the justices struggled over the extent to which social media platforms should be held liable when terrorist groups use the platforms to promote their cause.

Chief Justice John Roberts said that despite any algorithm YouTube may use to push users to view videos, the company is “still not responsible for the content of the videos … or text that is transmitted.”

Justice Elena Kagan told a lawyer for one of the families, “I can imagine a world where you’re right that none of this stuff gets protection.”

“And, you know, every other industry has to internalize the costs of its conduct. Why is it that the tech industry gets a pass? A little bit unclear,” she said.

“On the other hand, I mean, we’re a court. We really don’t know about these things. You know, these are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet,” Kagan said at the time.

The Supreme Court’s new 38-page decision in Twitter Inc. v. Taamneh, court file 21-1496, was written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Matthew Vadum