Advertisement

A family's tragedy leads to U.S. Supreme Court social media showdown

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old aspiring industrial designer, ventured to Paris as a student at California State University, Long Beach on a study-abroad program. She lost her cellphone, so one day in November 2015 she let her mother Beatriz know she was well with a one-word message on Facebook: "Mommy."

Beatriz responded with one word, "Mimi," her daughter's nickname.

"We had this bond," Beatriz said in an interview. "Sending me just a single word - I understood that she was okay, she was good. By me answering, 'Mimi,' I was saying, 'I'm here, whatever you need.'"

Two days after that message exchange, Nohemi died in a hail of bullets fired by Islamist militants as she sat at a bistro called La Belle Epoque, part of a rampage of shootings and suicide bombings that killed 130 people, with the Islamic State militant group claiming responsibility.

Beatriz Gonzalez now finds herself at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court showdown over the scope of protections contained in federal law freeing social media platforms from legal responsibility for content posted online by their users. Arguments before the nine justices are scheduled for Tuesday.

Helped by attorneys who have fought to hold internet companies accountable for actions that allegedly aided and abetted militant groups, the Gonzalez family sued Alphabet Inc's Google LLC for financial damages because its YouTube video-sharing service hosted Islamic State content and its algorithms recommended the group's videos to certain users.

The justices will hear the family's appeal of a lower court's decision to throw out the lawsuit, largely based on immunity granted to social media companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. They will hear a related case involving Twitter Inc on Wednesday.

"It's very important for the law to change," Beatriz said, adding that a ruling in her favor would benefit not just her family but "all people who have been suffering these attacks, everywhere."

The lawsuit argued that YouTube's actions provided "material support" to Islamic State. It was brought under a federal law called the Anti-Terrorism Act, which lets Americans recover damages related to "an act of international terrorism."

Critics including Democratic President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump have said Section 230 needs reform in light of the actions of social media companies in the decades since its enactment. The law prohibits "interactive computer services" from being treated as the "publisher or speaker" of information provided by outside users.

"This court should not undercut a central building block of the modern internet," Google told the justices in a filing.

"Eroding Section 230's protection would create perverse incentives that could both increase removals of legal but controversial speech on some websites and lead other websites to close their eyes to harmful or even illegal content," it added.

'RESHAPE THE INTERNET'

Legal scholars fret about a fading of free speech online - with certain content stifled - should Section 230 be weakened.

"That user content might include information that both sides of the political aisle might find important - for example, claims about sexual harassment or police abuse or government policies on vaccines," said Anupam Chander, a technology regulation expert at Georgetown University Law Center.

"This case truly could reshape the internet for the next generation," Chander added.

The case being argued on Wednesday also arises from a family's tragedy. American relatives of a Jordanian man named Nawras Alassaf slain in 2017 in an Istanbul nightclub shooting that killed 39 people - with Islamic State again claiming responsibility - accused Twitter in a lawsuit of aiding and abetting the group by failing to police the platform for its accounts or posts.

Twitter is appealing after a lower court allowed that lawsuit to proceed and found that the company refused to take "meaningful steps" to prevent Islamic State's use of the platform. Google and Meta's Facebook also are defendants, but did not formally join Twitter's appeal.

Twitter in a Supreme Court filing said it has terminated more than 1.7 million accounts for violating rules against "threatening or promoting terrorism."

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a lawyer representing the Gonzalez family, said social media companies, through automated and human means, can prevent militant groups from using their services.

"One thing is very clear," Darshan-Leitner said. "There should be zero tolerance for terrorism on social media. Terror organizations are using social media as a tool that they never had before - and cannot do without."

Beatriz Gonzalez expressed confidence that the justices will side with her. In her home, she keeps close her daughter's ashes and pictures.

"She's going to be always alive in my heart," she said. "I am always going to have her memory - everything that she said and whatever she did, all her history - in my heart."

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)