The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a major challenge to the internet’s legal shield known as Section 230, which has long protected social media sites from being sued for what users post there.
In a brief unsigned opinion, the court said it would not rule on the potentially important issue because the plaintiffs had no valid allegations that Twitter or Google had aided terrorists, an allegation that was at the heart of their lawsuit.
The result has been a relief for social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, which grew and prospered due in large part to the protections Congress set in place at the dawn of the internet.
“This is a huge win for free speech on the internet,” said Chris Marchese, director of the Litigation Center at technology lobby group NetChoice. “The court was asked to undermine Section 230 – and refused.”
But the ministers left open the issue that first drew attention, so that it may arise in a future process.
Section 230 has been dubbed “the 26 words that created the internet” because it says that “interactive computer service” can be a platform for free speech and must not be “treated as the editor or speaker of any information” posted there.
So while publishers and broadcasters can be sued for content they print or air, interactive websites cannot.
In recent years, critics have complained that social media companies were pushing the limits of these protections with computer algorithms that guide users to content that might be of interest to them, based on their past activity. These algorithms sometimes direct users to content that may be considered dangerous, violent, or offensive.
Critics of Section 230 have argued that even if the companies are not held responsible for what their users post, their algorithms’ suggestions to guide users to similar content is essentially the speech of the companies and should not be protected.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on Section 230, but last year it sent shivers through much of the high-tech industry when it agreed to hear two cases that challenged legal immunity for websites.
Both cases came from victims and survivors of terrorist attacks. In 2016, Congress made it easier to prosecute those who “assist or abet” an act of international terrorism by “knowingly” providing “substantial assistance” to perpetrators.
In Twitter vs. Taamneh, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way for social media platforms, including Facebook and Google, to be sued on the grounds that their websites helped recruit the terrorists who carried out an attack on an Istanbul nightclub.
Meanwhile, in Gonzalez v. Google, the court agreed to consider whether the platforms could be held liable – Section 230 notwithstanding – on the basis that their algorithms played a role in recruiting terrorists for a series of attacks in Paris.
In February, ministers heard arguments over two days in both cases, starting with a focus on algorithms. During the second day, several judges expressed skepticism about the process in the Istanbul attack case.
On Thursday, they delivered a unanimous decision dismissing the complicity lawsuit against Twitter. Judge Clarence Thomas said such allegations should be limited to “truly culpable conduct” and that there was no convincing argument that Twitter knowingly helped to recruit terrorists.
Based on that conclusion, the judges also dismissed the supplemental case against Google that raised the issue of algorithms, saying that because the underlying lawsuit cannot proceed, “we therefore decline to address the application of §230 to a claim that appears to assert little, if any, plausible claim for relief.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement Thursday that the court’s failure to rule should prompt Congress to change Section 230. Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized Big Tech’s growing power and influence.
“The judges turned down the chance to clarify that Section 230 is not a prison exemption card for online platforms when they cause harm,” Durbin said. “Enough is enough. … Congress must step in, reform Section 230 and remove general immunity from liability from platforms.