Judge Dumps Two Lawsuits Attempting To Hold Facebook Responsible For Acts Of Terrorism

from the not-how-this-works dept

Two lawsuits filed by victims of terrorist attacks against Facebook have been dismissed. Both suits alleged Facebook was complicit in acts of terrorism simply because it (subjectively) didn't do enough to discourage use of the platform by alleged terrorists.

One lawsuit (Cohen v. Facebook) plead on behalf of "20,000 similarly-situated" residents of Israel who continue to face the threat of violence at the hands of terrorist organization Hamas. The other (Force v. Facebook) also featured multiple plaintiffs but was limited to families of victims of Hamas attacks. Neither case presented legitimate complaints and both advanced novel arguments in an attempt to avoid a dismissal under Section 230.

The alternative routes to judgment worked out no better for the plaintiffs, as Eric Goldman reports. The Cohen class action presented a legal theory that couldn't even be addressed by the court due to a lack of jurisdiction. From the decision [PDF]:

the Cohen Plaintiffs do not seek redress for past actions but instead seek prospective, injunctiye relief based on their allegation that Facebook’s actions increase their risk of harm from future terrorist attacks. This claimed harm relies on multiple conjectural leaps, most significantly its central assumption that the Cohen Plaintiffs will be among the victims of an as-yet unknown terrorist attack by independent actors not before the court. The Cohen Complaint contains no factual allegation that could form a basis to conclude that those individuals in particular are at any “substantial” or “certainly impending” risk of future harm. At most, the Complaint shows a general risk of harm to residents of Israel and impliedly asks the court to extract a risk of harm to the Cohen Plaintiffs based on this risk. Without further allegations, however, the court sees no basis to conclude that the Cohen Plaintiffs “specifically will be the target of any future, let alone imminent, terrorist attack.”

Nor can the Cohen Plaintiffs rescue their claims by arguing that they suffer a present harm resulting from their fear of such attacks, as “allegations of a subjective [fear] are not an adequate substitute for a claim of specific present objective harm or threat of a specific future harm.” While the court does not question the sincerity of the Cohen Plaintiffs’ anxieties, their subjective fears cannot confer standing absent a sufficient showing of the risk of future harm.

The Force plaintiffs did not entirely avoid a Section 230 argument, but posited the immunity does not apply to content posted outside of the United States. The court grants that this legal theory is mostly unexplored at this point, but that the plaintiffs cannot avail themselves of an extraterritorial-reliant legal theory while bringing legal action in a US court against a US-based company.

In light of its focus on limiting civil liability, the court concludes that the relevant location is that where the grant of immunity is applied, i.e. the situs of the litigation. Section 230(c)(1) suggests a number of "territorial relationships and events," which are generally divisible into those associated with the underlying claim (e.g., the location of the information content provider, the intemet service provider, or the act of publishing or speaking) and the location associated with the imposition of liability, i.e. where the intemet service provider is to be "treated" as the publisher or speaker. Given the statutory focus on limiting liability, however, the location of the relevant "territorial events" or "relationships" cannot be the place in which the claims arise but instead must be where redress is sought and immunity is needed.

With this in mind, the court concludes that the Force Action does not require an impermissible extraterritorial application of Section 230(c)(1). As the situs of the litigation is New York, the relevant "territorial events or relationships" occur domestically. Accordingly, the court rejects the Force Plaintiffs argument that Facebook should be denied immunity under Section 230(c)(1).

As Goldman points out, this looks like a routine and logical application of Section 230 immunity, but if arguments like these are entertained in other courts, it could pose some serious, irreparable problems for social media platforms.

The plaintiffs essentially sought to treat Facebook as the financial guarantor of all terrorist-caused harms to all victims, regardless of what role Facebook played in causing those harms. Such an unbounded financial exposure could dwarf Facebook’s market capitalization, meaning that the theories behind these lawsuits pose an existential threat to Facebook, other social media sites, and possibly the entire Internet. Thus, the judge’s well-reasoned and clear rejection of the plaintiff’s claim is a big win for Facebook and the Internet.

This decision will be appealed by both parties. There's been no decision yet on a similar suit filed in the Ninth Circuit, but the chances of these legal theories succeeding is very slim. But it's not impossible to end up with a bad ruling or, at the very least, precedent that weakens Section 230 without removing it completely. We've seen it happen before. But so far courts haven't felt the urge to hold social media platforms directly responsible for terrorists' acts of violence and it's unlikely these two complainants are going to change that.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 May 2017 @ 5:58am

    Emulating the latest headline about facebook: "Well, duh..."


    We should seriously start treating these people as mentally impaired.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2017 @ 7:11am

      Re:

      not really possible to start something you are already doing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Ninja (profile), 19 May 2017 @ 7:39am

        Re: Re:

        Not me specifically. I mean, what I said is assholish but for
        Christ is it that hard to blame the true criminals and not the tools?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2017 @ 7:50am

          Re: Re: Re:

          "is it that hard to blame the true criminals and not the tools?"
          It really is.

          Just like a gun is a tool for a person...
          A politician is a tool of the people.

          People want to blame gun makers and politicians for their problems. Some one will be along to tell me I am wrong or victim blaming shortly.

          Accepting responsibility is not one of humanities strengths.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            JoeCool (profile), 19 May 2017 @ 8:50am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Your example doesn't fit. My gun doesn't take bribes from lobbyists, nor does it change it's mind and do the opposite of what it said it would do before I bought it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2017 @ 9:07am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              But if you refuse to read the customer reviews telling you that the gun you want to buy looks good but doesn't actually work, turning around and blaming the gun for not working correctly is asinine.

              Sure, it's technically a valid complaint, but you're still an irresponsible idiot for even being in a position to make it, much less actually doing so.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2017 @ 9:19am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              I foretold that one of you would be along shortly.

              Your logic is corrupt.

              "My gun doesn't take bribes from lobbyists, nor does it change it's mind"

              But the company making your gun can, resulting in the same problem.

              "and do the opposite of what it said it would do before I bought it."

              we usually refer to those as malfunctioning equipment.




              Your problem is that you think things are more separate than they are.

              If a person continues to use a gun that has changed in operation due to "compromised by bribery of its maker/repairer" or due to simple malfunction, then they are not very smart.

              Same as if a person continues to use a politician that has changed in operation due to "compromise by bribery by any source" or due to simple malfunction (lying), then they are not very smart.

              At the end of the day, the Declaration of Independence said it best.

              "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

              People refusing to change the tools of their oppression are no longer blameless and just as Obama said recently and I usually say here, people get the governments they deserve!

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Satanist, 19 May 2017 @ 6:47am

    yup theys not well in the brain pan

    i agree lets kick everyone out of manhatten island and dump the nutters there

    just like a movie i saw

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 19 May 2017 @ 7:29am

    Nutters

    Manhatten?
    Wouldn't it be cheaper to wall off DC and drop the few extra there and be done with it

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jordan Chandler, 19 May 2017 @ 8:00am

    expectations

    What is the expectations of then plaintiffs? WHat do they feel facebook can and should have done? ANd what do they want them to do go forward?

    Why do people expect millions of dollars from companies? I bet all these people even use facebook daily.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 May 2017 @ 8:06am

      Re: expectations

      "Why do people expect millions of dollars from companies?"

      I see this a lot and is easy to answer.

      Money is the one thing a businesses care about. If you want a business to change its behavior then this is how you do it. It's the people asking for much "smaller" sums of money that are usually just doing it for the money alone.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      afn29129 (profile), 19 May 2017 @ 8:45am

      Re: expectations

      I've heard it called the litigious lottery. Spin the wheel and win big.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Peter (profile), 19 May 2017 @ 10:32am

    crazy arguments, maybe

    The music industry has hugely successful in taking down pretty much any business they want by alleging that huge damages could have been avoided if the defendant had 'done more'. No evidence needed for damages actually being incurred, no evidence needed that defendant had any role at all in someone copying a file worth 20 cents.

    Just a question of time until the plaintiffs find a judge willing to drop the hammer on Facebook. The mistake they made here is going after an American company in an American court.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    McFortner (profile), 20 May 2017 @ 10:52am

    Don't they realize?

    I guess it hasn't registered to them that it's poor business practice to sue the people who will be your future content providers?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 21 May 2017 @ 12:02am

    That's like suing Satan for littering.

    I mean, come on? The terminal goal of terrorism is the destruction of the fabric and function of society and forcing people's focus and effectivity away from contributing to it.

    Facebook has been more effective at that task than centuries of terrorism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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