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Gonzalez’s daughter, Nohemi, was one of 130 people killed in a group of coordinated attacks carried out in the French capital last November by men who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. Nohemi, a student at California State University Long Beach, was studying abroad in Paris and was killed at La Belle Equipe cafe.
But what chance does Reynaldo Gonzalez have in court against three of the Internet’s biggest companies?
According to Gonzalez’s suit, the social media giants “knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use their social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits”.
Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (which is owned by Google) were known to be important communication tools for the IS group well before last year’s attacks. According to the Brookings Institute, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters in October and November 2014 alone.
Instead of attacking the social media sites for hosting terrorist-related content, Gonzalez’s lawyers claim that Twitter and Google knowingly gave terrorists technical tools for recruitment and operations.
“This is not about the content of the postings. This is about providing an infrastructure by which ISIS can recruit, conduct operations and spread propaganda,” Keith Altman, a lawyer for Gonzalez, told the Los Angeles times on Thursday.
Content Decency and ‘causation’
According to legal experts, this novel approach is likely to fail because of two major legal shields protecting Google, Twitter, and Facebook.
The first is the Content Decency Act (CDA), passed in 1996, which says that a company that allows users to post content can’t be held responsible for the content that users post. Section 230 of the CDA states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
“The law really provides a strong legal liability shield to companies like Facebook that provide platforms for users,” Bradley Shear, an attorney who focuses on social media, told FRANCE 24.
For Gonzalez to win, he would also have to demonstrate what lawyers call “causation”, or a cause-and-effect connection between the social media companies’ policies and the November terrorist attacks.
“You would have to prove that Twitter took a certain step–or failed to take a step–that caused the Paris attack to happen,” Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told FRANCE 24.
The causality argument may be even harder to win than the argument against the CDA, Mackey says.
Legislation versus company policy
All three companies have argued that they already do a lot to remove terrorist content from their sites.
A statement from Twitter argues that “teams around the world [are] actively investigating reports of rule violations, identifying violating conduct, and working with law enforcement entities when appropriate”.
Google released a similar statement, saying that “YouTube has a strong track record of taking swift action against terrorist content. We have clear policies prohibiting terrorist recruitment … and quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users. We also terminate accounts run by terrorist organizations or those that repeatedly violate our policies.”
And while some experts agree that social media companies could increase their vigilance against terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, they said the changes would likely come from internal company policies, not from legislation.
“YouTube and any other platforms that monetize ISIS content may want to think long and hard about their policies and procedures,” Shear said. “Google and other companies in the industry could change their algorithms or terms of service to make it harder for users to find [terrorist-related] content.”
‘Important instruments of free expression’
Gonzalez’s suit is not the first to claim that social media companies should be held responsible for terrorism.
The wife of Lloyd Carl Fields, Jr., an American killed in a terrorist attack in Jordan, sued Twitter earlier in 2016 for “spreading extremist propaganda”. However, that case was dismissed earlier this week because the judge was not persuaded that companies like Twitter could be sued for messages sent by users, according to the site Courthouse News Service.
A win from Gonzalez could set a dangerous precedent for free speech on the Internet.
“What happened to Mr. Gonzalez is a tragedy,” Mackey said. “But if he is right then Twitter will have to start denying access to whole groups of people or regions. This would sweep up many people who are not terrorists and who use these platforms as important instruments of free expression.”
More importantly, lawyers say, the case could open the door to suits against a multitude of platforms.
“Over the past 500 years we’ve used the postal service, printing presses, telephone systems, and the Internet to communicate and spread messages,” Shear said. “Are we going to sue all of them?”