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Supreme Court overturns ruling holding platforms responsible for users' criminal activity

US Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has maintained that internet platforms such as social media are not responsible for users' content and actions, even if it results in criminal conduct or death.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Twitter could not be held responsible for aiding and abetting an ISIS-executed terrorist attack, upholding immunity granted by Section 230.

The original lawsuit was by the family of Nawras Alassaf, who was among 39 people killed in a January 2017 ISIS attack in Istanbul. Filed in California, the Antiterrorism Act allows U.S. nationals to sue those who "aids and abets, by knowingly providing substantial assistance" to terrorism.

The logic is that since Twitter and others knew ISIS used their services, tech companies didn't work hard enough to remove the content from view. Twitter believes that knowing there's terrorism isn't the same as knowing about "specific accounts that substantially assisted" in the attack, which it could directly act upon.

Section 230 refers to the part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that immunizes websites or services for content generated by its users, assuming a "good faith" effort is made to moderate illegal content.

In short, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter cannot be considered the publisher of that content if it is posted there by someone else.

A problem with the existence of Section 230 is that some parties believe it is too protective of service providers. In addition, the law's definition is broad on purpose, leading to accusations that it is being overused.

Part of that is the definition of the objectionable content that could be considered removable. When it comes to political content, the removal of that content could be thought of as a political commentary or, worse, censorship.

While Section 230 remains the status quo, growing bipartisan support for changes suggests this may not always be true.

A full repeal of Section 230 is unlikely, and tweaking is more plausible. However, while support for changes may be bipartisan, each party wants different and incompatible changes.