The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that will help determine whether social media platforms can be held liable for aiding and abetting terrorism for failing to remove content and accounts promoting it.
The arguments in Twitter v. Taamneh follow those in a case with similar facts, Gonzalez v. Google, that explores whether tech platforms can be held responsible for promoting terrorist posts through their recommendation algorithms. In that case, the justices seemed reluctant to overhaul the key legal liability shield in question, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms from being held accountable for hosting their users’ posts. While many appeared sympathetic to a narrower reading of the law, several also seemed to prefer kicking the responsibility over to Congress.
In Wednesday’s case, such a consensus was more elusive, as justices tested a variety of hypotheticals on lawyers for either side as well as a representative for the U.S. government, which generally argued in favor of Twitter. U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler represented the U.S. government.
The question in the case is whether Twitter can be held accountable for aiding and abetting a specific international terrorist act because it did not take more aggressive action against terrorist content on its service, given that it generally works to moderate and remove terrorist content under its policies.
Twitter’s lawyer Seth Waxman argued that the company should not be held responsible for aiding and abetting terrorism in instances where it is not directly aware of the specific post or account in question. He said that to satisfy the anti-terrorism law’s standard for liability, Twitter would have had to provide substantial assistance to the act of terrorism and know their actions would provide such assistance.
Waxman tried to draw a distinction between an open and widely used service like Twitter and a bank that provides money to a terrorist, given Know Your Customer laws that would require a bank to collect more information before providing its services, creating a greater level of knowledge than Twitter would have.
Justice Samuel Alito said he could see two different arguments for how Twitter could win, but it’s difficult to say in each where to draw the line. The first argument would be that Twitter did not know its services would be used to carry out a specific attack and the second would be that Twitter didn’t substantially assist in the attack.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that basing a win for Twitter on the knowing standard would be difficult “because willful blindness is something we have said can constitute knowledge.”
Justice Elena Kagan at one point asked Waxman whether Twitter could be held liable if it actually didn’t enforce any policy against terrorist content on its site. Waxman said he doesn’t think it could unless it also provided “affirmative assistance” to the terrorists.
Kagan seemed to disagree with that interpretation, saying it would be obvious in that scenario that Twitter was providing substantial assistance to terrorist activity, asking, “how could it be otherwise?”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett laid out a possible framework for a ruling in favor of Twitter in her questioning of Kneedler. Coney Barrett said such an opinion might say that in order to find Twitter liable for aiding and abetting the terrorist act, the complaint would have to prove that Twitter’s service was directly used toward the terrorist attack, not just general recruitment or radicalizing.
Coney Barrett also hypothesized that the justices could say there needs to be an allegation of specific knowledge of a terrorist act in order to find a service that’s “open to all comers” liable.
Kneedler said it would be important to clarify that some businesses that are theoretically open to all, like banks, would have a more “individualized encounter” with their consumers in the course of doing business, granting them more knowledge than a platform like Twitter.
Eric Schnapper, the attorney for Taamneh, conceded that they were not alleging specific ways Twitter was used to carry out the terrorist attack, but rather general recruitment. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked if it would be illegal to sell Osama bin Laden a phone without knowing it would be used for a terrorist specific terrorist act.
Schnapper said it would not be necessary to prove the phone was used for a specific terrorist act, because it “aids the terrorist enterprise.” He later conceded that alleging bin Laden did in fact use the phone to further his terrorist activity “would be the better way to plea it.” Still, he said, the potential terrorist actions “would be fairly implicit in his name,” he said.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on the case by June.
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