WASHINGTON – Supreme Court they heard the arguments on Wednesday over whether internet platforms can be sued for aiding and abetting international terrorism by not removing videos supporting the Islamic State.
The case, which involves a federal law allowing prosecution for “knowingly providing substantial assistance” to terrorists, was linked to one argued on Tuesday which addressed a separate issue of whether platforms are immune from lawsuits under a 1996 law that shields them from liability for what their users post.
As a practical matter, the court’s decision in Wednesday’s case, Twitter v. Taamneh, No. 21-1496, could effectively resolve both cases and allow the justices to avoid difficult questions about the scope of the 1996 § 230 Communication Decency Act. Act.
Wednesday’s argument was technical. The judges dissected the elements of the law before them, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, analyzing its provisions and asking hypothetical questions about what kind of conduct it covered. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. he said that “this morning’s discussion has indeed taken a very academic tone”.
The case involved Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in a 2017 terrorist attack on an Istanbul nightclub claimed by the Islamic State. His family sued Twitter and other tech companies for allowing ISIS to use their platforms to recruit and train terrorists.
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Seth P. Waxman, a lawyer for Twitter, emphasized that prosecutors did not accuse his client of providing “substantial assistance, much less knowing substantial assistance, to this attack or, for that matter, any other attack,” adding that it was undisputed that Twitter “did not intend to assist the terrorist activities of ISIS.”
He continued: “What we have here is an alleged failure to do more to detect violations of a clear and enforced policy against aiding or permitting any broadcast in support of terrorist organizations or activities.” That was not enough, Mr. Waxman argued, to amount to “aiding and aiding and abetting an act of international terrorism’.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Mr. Waxman that the fact remains that “you knew that ISIS was using your platform.”
Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh summed up Twitter’s position: “When there is a legitimate business that provides services on a widely available basis in a market-independent manner, it will not be liable under this law even if it knows that bad people are using its services for bad things. .”
Justice Elena Kagan asked Edwin S. Kneedler, a federal lawyer arguing in support of Twitter, how the case before the court differs from one involving the provision of banking services to known terrorists.
“They provide a hundred other non-terrorist clients with the same banking services, but to this known terrorist, they provide these banking services that are very important to his terrorist activities,” she said. “Can you go to that person under this law?”
Mr Kneedler said yes if the customer was “someone who is a leader or someone who you know has committed or is about to commit an act of terrorism”.
Justice Kagan said banking and social media may not be so different.
“We’re used to thinking of banks as providing a very important service to terrorists,” she said. “Maybe we’re not so used to it, but it seems to be true that different kinds of social media platforms also provide very important services to terrorists.”
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Eric Schnapper, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, acknowledged that their lawsuit did not accuse Twitter of complicity in the Istanbul attack. Their lawsuit, he said, focused on Twitter’s role in “recruiting and fundraising.”
“Of the total cost of operating a terrorist organization, the cost of a specific attack is a very small part,” he said. “Running terrorist organizations is very expensive. It involves fundraising. There are lots of salaries. There is travel. There is a bribe. There are forged documents.”
He added: “That is why it is so important for the court to decide that it matters to the whole business that the aid is given. If you limit the help that matters to the tip of the spear, you’ve written almost all the help that matters out of law.”
In arguments Tuesday, Judge Amy Coney Barrett suggested that a ruling in favor of Twitter in Wednesday’s case could effectively resolve both disputes and spare the court from having to decide the scope of Section 230 in the lawsuit against Google.
“If you lose tomorrow,” she asked Mr. Schnapper on Tuesday, “do we even have to get here to the Section 230 issue?”
Mr. Schnapper was not ready to make concessions, indicating that his clients would try to amend their complaint in their case against Google if the court ruled for Twitter in Wednesday’s case.