Court Shuts Down Yet Another Lawsuit Against Social Media Companies Over Terrorist Attacks

from the 1-(800)-L-FIRM dept

Another Excolo Law/1-800-LAW-FIRM lawsuit against social media companies alleging terrorism support has been shown the door by a federal judge. The survivors of Pulse Nightclub shooting sued Twitter, Google, and Facebook for supposedly being at least somewhat responsible for the horrible act carried out by the shooter. The law firms attempted to dodge dismissal under Section 230 by fashioning this as a material support for terrorism complaint. Unsurprisingly, the judge — without ever having to address the dodged Section 230 issue — didn’t find any of the plaintiffs’ arguments persuasive.

The elements needed to satisfy various anti-terrorism laws simply aren’t present in the complaint, and no matter how far the judge is willing to stretch the arguments, they can’t be forced to cover these missing pieces. From the decision [PDF]:

Accepting for the moment that Mateen’s shooting spree satisfied parts A and B of the “international terrorism” definition, the amended complaint falls short of plausibly suggesting it fits within part C. It appears to be undisputed that the Pulse Night Club attack was carried out by a single shooter — Omar Mateen — and that both Mateen and his victims were, at the time of the attack, all located and resident in Orlando, Florida, within the United States. The plaintiffs have not pointed to any “means by which [the shooting] was accomplished” that involved acts crossing any national border; nor do they point to any persons outside the United States whom the shooting was “intended to intimidate or coerce”; and they have not pointed to any international “locale in which [the] perpetrator[] operate[d] or [sought] asylum.” The only allegations of the complaint even hinting at some trans-national connection are those concerning Mateen’s viewing of videos and Internet content that the plaintiffs contend were posted by agents of ISIS. But the complaint fails to assert any facts plausibly suggesting that the substance of those videos and other messages, or the posting of them, had anything at all directly to do with the shooting, other than that the principles espoused in them motivated Mateen to carry out the dreadful act.

Even if the shooter’s influences were based in foreign countries, a purely-domestic act of terrorism cannot be considered international terrorism for the purposes of this lawsuit. Furthermore, the attempt to link the shooting directly to ISIS cannot be made without evidence, and despite the length of the complaint, the plaintiffs provide none.

There are no pleaded facts that tend to show that Mateen carried out this act under ISIS’s express direction. To be sure, even ISIS never claimed that it had any contact with Mateen or instructed him to shoot up the Pulse Night Club. And the heaps of relatively concrete facts that the amended complaint does offer — despite the immense emotional gravity of the violent and tragic global events to which they allude — do not bridge the gap between ISIS’s violent screeds and Mateen’s shooting spree. In their attempts to span the separate streams of events described in the pleadings, the plaintiffs have shown little beyond mere happenstance and possibility.

Just as futile are the claims the mere existence of ISIS-operated social media accounts somehow equate to material support for terrorism by the service providers.

There are no facts that suggest that the defendants “encouraged” Mateen to commit his crimes. Likewise, the plaintiffs do not allege that the defendants provided him with any assistance, such as instructions on how to build a bomb or obtain an assault rifle. Certainly, no one suggests that any of the defendants’ representatives were present at the scene, that they had any “relationship” with Mateen, or that they were of a mind to see this horrible event take place.

It all boils down to this: just because someone saw something on the internet that motivated them to commit an act of violence does not make the violent act the internet’s fault. The blame for the act rests on the shoulders of the person who committed it, not the service providers whose services were used by terrorists to spread their message. Even if it’s true social media companies could do better tracking down and removing terrorist accounts and their content, it still doesn’t make them culpable for the Pulse Nightclub shooter’s heinous act.

In this case, the allegations that Mateen viewed some literature and videos produced by ISIS is not sufficient to sustain any inference that either the defendants, or ISIS, or any individual or entity directly associated with ISIS, had any discernible direct involvement in the Orlando attack. Instead, the complaint suggests, at most, that the defendants merely were aware of a generalized risk that persons associated with or sympathetic to ISIS’s cause could, at some point, derive some benefit from their services, and that, at some point (by all accounts only after the attack) ISIS became aware of and expressed its approval of the attack. Those tenuous connections do not suffice to sustain the required inference of proximate cause.

With that, the case is dismissed with prejudice. The Section 230 immunity question — raised by the defendants in their motion to dismiss — is never addressed. But then, it really doesn’t need to be. While it would be nice to have more affirmations of Section 230 immunity written into case law, the baseless anti-terrorism law allegations are more than enough to see this lawsuit join others by the same law firms in the dustbin of legal history.

Not that another loss has had any effect on Excolo Law and 1-800-LAW-FIRM. As Eric Goldman reports, the questionable business model of ringing up loss after loss is still somehow generating sustainable income.

Will that stop 1-800-LAWFIRM from filing more lawsuits? Of course not; they filed another one yesterday despite this ruling. I admire the lawyers’ doggedness even as I question their substantive and procedural expertise.

So far, not a single one of these lawsuits has survived a motion to dismiss. But it won’t stop people from trying. Targets like Facebook and Twitter are too big to ignore, even if the accusations have almost zero chance of resulting in a victory for the plaintiffs and their representatives.

Filed Under:
Companies: facebook, google, twitter

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Comments on “Court Shuts Down Yet Another Lawsuit Against Social Media Companies Over Terrorist Attacks”

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Gary (profile) says:

Great Firewall

It amazes me how people actively work to turn an open internet into a walled garden where only pre-approved, safe communications are allowed.
If suits like this gained traction, and intermediaries were held liable for the actions of ISIS and other hate groups the only sure fire way to stop bad actors is to crack down hard on free expression like China has.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Great Firewall

It amazes me how people actively work to turn an open internet into a walled garden where only pre-approved, safe communications are allowed.

That’s because something had to be done to avenge the victims. Terrorism is nothing about actual security, in the US anyway, it’s all about control. These plaintiffs either saw a juicy target they couldn’t resist, or just want someone to suffer for the death of the victims.

If it’s the first case, imagine how 1-800-LAWYERS-FEES could make a killing off of a successful lawsuit. Worse if they can somehow find the potential for an "East Texas" scenario.

If it’s the second case, that’s the extent of the US legal system. "Did we punish someone for this?" It doesn’t matter if it’s the correct someone so long as someone suffers for it. Real terrorist orgs can’t really be sued in court and then dragged behind a glass viewing window for their state-mandated deaths. The social media giants however are much more easily dragged before a judge, and therefore a good enough target for the plaintiffs vengeance.

In either case, the lawsuit fullfils the original intent of the plantiffs: Throw a temper tantrum and cause more suffering because we’re upset. That the internet would be reduced to TV Version 2.0, is inconsequential to that goal.

That One Guy (profile) says:

'As long as we're getting paid...'

As Eric Goldman reports, the questionable business model of ringing up loss after loss is still somehow generating sustainable income.

So long as they can con grief-stricken and/or greedy people looking to make a buck into paying them, so long as there’s a chance, if ever so slight to get a ‘go away’ settlement offer from a large company, and so long as they don’t face any actual penalties for bringing essentially the same case over, and over, and over again… they have no reason to stop.

They’re getting paid whether they win or lose, why should they care that they’re taking advantage of people and trying to screw over countless others with a dangerously stupid precedent?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Given they keep getting slapped down and yet keep filing the same case over and over while I can’t say for certain I strongly suspect that yes, while they’d get a bigger payday from a win or ‘settlement’ they are likely getting paid by their marks/clients.

It’s either that or they’re desperate enough to score a ‘settlement’ that they’re throwing money to the wind by taking cases entirely on contingency in the hopes that eventually one of these cases will get before a judge willing to buy their rubbish and whatever company they’re trying to shake down will throw them some money to go away.

Both are possible, I just consider the former more likely.

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