Supreme Court wrestles with lawsuit claiming Twitter aided terrorists

Supreme Court wrestles with lawsuit claiming Twitter aided terrorists

Supreme Court wrestles with lawsuit claiming Twitter aided terrorists

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments about whether internet platforms could be sued for aiding and abetting international terrorism by failing to remove videos supporting the Islamic State.


The case, which concerns a federal law allowing prosecution for “knowingly providing substantial assistance” to terrorists, was linked to a case argued on Tuesday that considered the separate issue of whether platforms are immune from prosecution under of a 1996 law that shields them from liability for what their users post.

In practice, the court’s decision in Wednesday’s case, Twitter v. Taamneh, #21-1496, could effectively resolve both cases and allow judges to dodge difficult questions about the scope of the 1996 law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency. Law.

Wednesday’s argument was technical. The judges unveiled elements of the law before them, the Justice Against the Sponsors of Terrorism Act, analyzing its provisions and asking hypothetical questions about the type of conduct it covered. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said “the discussion this morning really took on a very academic tone.”

The case involved Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in a 2017 Istanbul nightclub terror attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. His family sued Twitter and other tech companies, claiming they allowed ISIS to use their platforms to recruit and train terrorists.

Seth P. Waxman, an attorney for Twitter, pointed out that plaintiffs did not accuse his client of providing “substantial assistance, let alone substantial knowing assistance, to this attack or, for that matter, to any other attacks,” adding that it was indisputable that Twitter “had no intention of aiding ISIS terrorist activities.”

He continued, “What we have here is an alleged failure to do more to uncover violations of a clear and enforced policy against aiding or authorizing any publication supporting terrorist organizations or activities.” This was not enough, according to Mr. Waxman, to amount to “aiding and abetting an act of international terrorism”.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor told Mr Waxman it remained that “you knew IS was using your platform”.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh summed up Twitter’s position: “Where there is a legitimate business that provides services that are widely available and arm’s length, they will not be liable under this law even if they know that bad people use his services for bad things.”

Judge Elena Kagan asked Edwin S. Kneedler, a federal government lawyer advocating for Twitter, how the case in court differed from those involving the provision of banking services to known terrorists.

“They provide a hundred other customers who are not terrorists with the same banking services, but they provide this known terrorist with these banking services which are very important for his terrorist activities,” she said. “Can you prosecute this person under this law?”

Mr Kneedler said yes, as long as the client was “someone who is a leader or someone you know who has committed or is about to commit a terrorist act”.

Justice Kagan said banks and social media may not be so different.

“We used to think that banks provide very important services to terrorists,” she said. “Maybe we’re not so used to it, but it seems true that various types of social media platforms also provide very important services to terrorists.”

Eric Schnapper, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, acknowledged that their lawsuit did not accuse Twitter of complicity in the Istanbul bombing. Their lawsuit, he said, focused on Twitter’s role in “recruitment and fundraising.”

“Of the overall cost of running a terrorist organization, the cost of a particular attack is a very small part,” he said. “Leading terrorist organizations is very expensive. It involves fundraising. There are a lot of salaries. There are trips. There is corruption. There is falsification of documents.

He added: “That is why it is so important for the court to find that the whole of the business being helped matters. If you limit the aid that matters at the tip of the spear, you have excluded from the law almost all the aid that matters.

During oral argument on Tuesday, Judge Amy Coney Barrett suggested that a ruling in favor of Twitter in Wednesday’s case could effectively resolve the two disputes and save the court from having to rule on the scope of the Section 230 in a lawsuit against Google.

“If you lose tomorrow,” she asked Mr. Schnapper on Tuesday, “do we even have to get to the Section 230 issue here?”

Mr. Schnapper was not prepared to make that concession, saying his clients would try to amend their complaint in their case against Google if the court rules in favor of Twitter in Wednesday’s case.


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