Twitter liability in the spotlight at the Supreme Court

Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 4:32 PM EST
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - For a second day in a row the Supreme Court took aim at the protections for American tech giants. Tuesday Google faced scrutiny from the justices and Wednesday it was Twitter’s turn. The two sides in Twitter v. Taamneh took questions from the justices for nearly three hours in what was supposed to be a 70-minute session. The oral arguments centered around the extent to which companies like twitter should be held accountable for terrorist activity on their platforms.

The case stems from a 2017 ISIS attack at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey. The family of one of those killed sued Twitter citing the Antiterrorism Act. The Taamneh family claims Twitter knowingly provided ISIS substantial assistance, aiding and abetting an act of international terrorism by allowing the terror group’s content on their platform. Twitter argues it did not know about the specific attack and ISIS did not use the site to plan it, so they are not liable. The justices grilled Twitter’s attorney.

“You’re helping by providing your service to those people…with the explicit knowledge that those people are using it to advance terrorism,” said Justice Elena Kagan.

The Taamneh legal team argues assistance does not have to be connected to a specific act and ISIS simply recruiting and fundraising via Twitter is enough to make the site responsible. Justice Neil Gorsuch took issue with the potentially broad accountability.

“This would put a heavy burden on a wide variety of businesses to try to ferret out more information about their customers to prevent liability under this kind of statute,” said Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Among the consequences of this case could be constant lawsuits against companies like Twitter, Google, and Meta if their current immunity is rolled back and they are found responsible for attacks they did not know about.

Eric Schnapper represented the Taamneh family in court. He argues these companies need to do a better job of keeping terrorist content off their platforms.

“They don’t need to send private investigators to the middle east to find terrorist materials on their websites, they just need to send a competent computer engineer to San Francisco,” said Schnapper.

This case comes a day after oral arguments in a nearly identical case involving Google, with that case largely focusing on the question of immunity tech companies enjoy under federal law, while Twitter’s case centers on whether the company directly aided and abetted a specific attack as the Taamneh family claims.

The justices also discussed the “state of mind” of the company alleged to be aiding ISIS. It is against Twitter policy for terrorist organizations to use the platform in illegal ways, and accounts involved in terrorist activity are supposed to be banned.

An opinion in the case is not expected until the summer.