Another Ridiculous Lawsuit Hopes To Hold Social Media Companies Responsible For Terrorist Attacks

from the from-an-alternate-reality-where-Section-230-doesn't-exist dept

Yet another lawsuit has been filed against social media companies hoping to hold them responsible for terrorist acts. The family of an American victim of a terrorist attack in Europe is suing Twitter, Facebook, and Google for providing material support to terrorists. [h/t Eric Goldman]

The lawsuit [PDF] is long and detailed, describing the rise of ISIS and use of social media by the terrorist group. It may be an interesting history lesson, but it's all meant to steer judges towards finding violations of anti-terrorism laws rather than recognize the obvious immunity given to third party platforms by Section 230.

When it does finally get around to discussing the issue, the complaint from 1-800-LAW-FIRM (not its first Twitter terrorism rodeo…) attacks immunity from an unsurprising angle. The suit attempts to portray the placement of ads on alleged terrorist content as somehow being equivalent to Google, Twitter, et al creating the terrorist content themselves.

When individuals look at a page on one of Defendants’ sites that contains postings and advertisements, that configuration has been created by Defendants. In other words, a viewer does not simply see a posting; nor does the viewer see just an advertisement. Defendants create a composite page of content from multiple sources.

Defendants create this page by selecting which advertisement to match with the content on the page. This selection is done by Defendants’ proprietary algorithms that select the advertisement based on information about the viewer and the content being. Thus there is a content triangle matching the postings, advertisements, and viewers.

Although Defendants have not created the posting, nor have they created the advertisement, Defendants have created new unique content by choosing which advertisement to combine with the posting with knowledge about the viewer.

Thus, Defendants’ active involvement in combining certain advertisements with certain postings for specific viewers means that Defendants are not simply passing along content created by third parties; rather, Defendants have incorporated ISIS postings along with advertisements matched to the viewer to create new content for which Defendants earn revenue, and thus providing material support to ISIS.

This argument isn't going to be enough to bypass Section 230 immunity. According to the law, the only thing social media companies are responsible for is the content of the ads they place. That they're placed next to alleged terrorist content may be unseemly, but it's not enough to hurdle Section 230 protections. Whatever moderation these companies engage in does not undercut these protections, even when their moderation efforts fail to weed out all terrorist content.

The lawsuit then moves on to making conclusory statements about these companies' efforts to moderate content, starting with an assertion not backed by the text of filing.

Most technology experts agree that Defendants could and should be doing more to stop ISIS from using its social network.

Following this sweeping assertion, two (2) tech experts are cited, both of whom appear to be only speaking for themselves. More assertions follow, with 1-800-LAW-FIRM drawing its own conclusions about how "easy" it would be for social media companies with millions of users to block the creation of terrorism-linked accounts [but how, if nothing is known of the content of posts until after the account is created?] and to eliminate terrorist content as soon as it goes live.

The complaint then provides an apparently infallible plan for preventing the creation of "terrorist" accounts. Noting the incremental numbering used by accounts repeatedly banned/deleted by Twitter, the complaint offers this "solution."

What the above example clearly demonstrates is that there is a pattern that is easily detectable without reference to the content. As such, a content-neutral algorithm could be easily developed that would prohibit the above behavior. First, there is a text prefix to the username that contains a numerical suffix. When an account is taken down by a Defendant, assuredly all such names are tracked by Defendants. It would be trivial to detect names that appear to have the same name root with a numerical suffix which is incremented. By limiting the ability to simply create a new account by incrementing a numerical suffix to one which has been deleted, this will disrupt the ability of individuals and organizations from using Defendants networks as an instrument for conducting terrorist operations.

Prohibiting this conduct would be simple for Defendants to implement and not impinge upon the utility of Defendants sites. There is no legitimate purpose for allowing the use of fixed prefix/incremental numerical suffix name.

Take a long, hard look at that last sentence. This is the sort of assertion someone makes when they clearly don't understand the subject matter. There are plenty of "legitimate purposes" for appending incremental numerical suffixes to social media handles. By doing this, multiple users can have the same preferred handle while allowing the system (and the users' friends/followers) to differentiate between similarly-named accounts. Everyone who isn't the first person to claim a certain handle knows the pain of being second... third… one-thousand-three-hundred-sixty-seventh in line. While this nomenclature process may allow terrorists to easily reclaim followers after account deletion, there are plenty of non-ominous reasons for allowing incremental suffixes.

That's indicative of the lawsuit's mindset: terrorist attacks are the fault of social media platforms because they've "allowed" terrorists to communicate. But that's completely the wrong party to hold responsible. Terrorist attacks are performed by terrorists, not social media companies, no matter how many ads have been placed around content litigants view as promoting terrorism.

Finally, the lawsuit sums it all up thusly: Monitoring content is easy -- therefore, any perceived lack of moderation is tantamount to direct support of terrorist activity.

Because the suspicious activity used by ISIS and other nefarious organizations engaged in illegal activities is easily detectable and preventable and that Defendants are fully aware that these organizations are using their networks to engage in illegal activity demonstrates that Defendants are acting knowingly and recklessly allowing such illegal conduct.

Unbelievably, the lawsuit continues from there, going past its "material support" Section 230 dodge to add claims of wrongful death it tries to directly link to Twitter, et al's allegedly inadequate content moderation.

The conduct of each Defendant was a direct, foreseeable and proximate cause of the wrongful deaths of Plaintiffs’ Decedent and therefore the Defendants’ are liable to Plaintiffs for their wrongful deaths.

This is probably the worst "Twitter terrorism" lawsuit filed yet, but quite possibly exactly what you would expect from a law firm with a history of stupid social media lawsuits and a phone number for a name.


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  • identicon
    Mason Wheeler, 13 Oct 2017 @ 10:51am

    According to the law, the only thing social media companies are responsible for is the content of the ads they place.

    Are they responsible for even that much?

    If so, do I have a legal cause of action against the maintainers of a website if I go there and an ad tries to send malware to my computer?

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2017 @ 11:03am

      Re:

      And are they responsible for, say, an ad placed by a politician in which Planned Parenthood is slandered?

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2017 @ 7:23am

        Re: Re:

        Third party liability is not right even though many politicians think it is just swell ... until they are impacted - and then it is outrageously wrong.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2017 @ 11:09am

    exactly what you would expect from a law firm with a history of stupid social media lawsuits and a phone number for a name.

    Exactly! Use of an outdated identifier scheme like phone numbers shows just how far behind the times they are. They really need to rebrand to name themselves after a URL, the modern way to uniquely identify oneself.

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

  • icon
    Dan (profile), 13 Oct 2017 @ 11:25am

    Wrong documents

    Both the link in the article text, and the embedded document at the end of the article, go to the wrong document--you've linked to an affidavit by an FBI agent, not the complaint in the case you're talking about.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2017 @ 11:26am

    summary: if twitter just would disallow numbered prefixes there would be no terrorism.

    Things that are obviously impossible:
    people who are not terrorists using numbered prefixes
    terrorists using letters for prefixes
    terrorists attaching numbers in the middle of the username
    terrorists attaching letters in the middle of the username
    terrorists using numbered suffixes
    terrorists using lettered suffixes
    terrorists changing some of the existing letters in the username
    ...

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

  • icon
    Blaine (profile), 13 Oct 2017 @ 11:53am

    Ads are not helping the terrorists.

    I don't know about everyone else, but if I try to read some content and it's surrounded by annoying ads, I leave the page.

    Adding ads to terrorist content is an effective way to reduce its reach!

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

    • icon
      stderric (profile), 14 Oct 2017 @ 1:10pm

      Re: Ads are not helping the terrorists.

      Maybe we could get terrorists off of social media and the web in general by denying them the use of ad-blockers.

      (Oops. Begin lawsuits aimed at Adblock Plus, Ghostery, Disconnect, etc. for remaining functional for terrorists.)

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

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 13 Oct 2017 @ 12:00pm

    Phone companies receive direct payments from terrorists using their services.

    Also: Banks, landlords, shops... and the governments claiming to protect us pave roads for them. Deliver mail!

    Sue them all.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2017 @ 12:26pm

    Politicians don't want to be responsible for anything, so they make shitty laws in order to blame other people. Mofos.

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

  • icon
    CanadianByChoice (profile), 13 Oct 2017 @ 9:16pm

    "could and should"

    "Most technology experts agree that Defendants could and should be doing more to stop ISIS from using its social network."
    Really? Give real, workable examples of HOW to do this, please?

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 13 Oct 2017 @ 11:05pm

      Re: "could and should"

      'Nerd harder', clearly if they do that then they can do it, as all things are possible if one merely nerds harder.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2017 @ 7:33am

      Re: "could and should"

      Well, simply design and implement a terrorist recognition device ... this should be easy and I don't understand why it has not yet been done.

      Then you could set a bit in the stream ... call it the terrorist bit, and then all browsers could detect said terrorist bit and not display the terrorist content.

      You would then need to generate a lot of fake traffic to the site, dont want them getting suspicious. Should be real easy to create some bots that act like real people ... no one will notice or suspect a thing, they could even use the phone book to generate names.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2017 @ 2:00pm

    I wonder if 1-800-law-firm has sequential telephone numbers for their telephone, fax and pager (seeing as they're that technologically stuck in the past) numbers .. ?

    I think the telephone network should ban such availability to get sequential numbers, think of the children !

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

  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 19 Oct 2017 @ 10:47am

    1-800-law-firm is a terrorist organisation due to the cause and spread of fear as a result of their actions.

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


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