Supreme Court to rule on how we use the internet
01:58 - Source: CNN

What we covered here

  • The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Twitter v. Taamneh, which will decide if social media companies can be sued for aiding and abetting a specific act of international terrorism when hosting certain user content on its platform.
  • Twitter’s attorney was grilled on what kind of assistance to terrorists would make a platform liable under the anti-terrorism law. He attempted to argue there’s a distinction between a defendant’s action assisting a terrorist versus their inaction.
  • The plaintiffs, the family of a person who was killed in an ISIS attack in Istanbul in 2017, allege social media companies, including Twitter, knowingly aided ISIS by allowing some of the group’s content to persist on their platforms.
  • Twitter has previously argued it was immune from the suit thanks to Section 230 and that just because ISIS used the platform to promote itself doesn’t constitute the company’s “knowing” assistance to the terrorist group.

Our live coverage has ended. You can read more about today’s arguments by scrolling through the posts below.

23 Posts

Takeaways from today's Supreme Court hearing on Twitter v. Taamneh

After back-to-back oral arguments this week, the Supreme Court appears reluctant to hand down the kind of sweeping ruling about liability for terrorist content on social media that some feared would upend the internet. 

On Wednesday, the justices struggled with claims that Twitter contributed to a 2017 ISIS attack in Istanbul by hosting content unrelated to the specific incident. Arguments in that case, Twitter v. Taamneh, came a day after the court considered whether YouTube can be sued for recommending videos created by ISIS to its users. 

If you’re just reading in now, here’s what you need to know:

What’s at stake: The closely watched cases carry significant stakes for the wider internet. An expansion of apps and websites’ legal risk for hosting or promoting content could lead to major changes at sites including Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube, to name a few. 

For nearly three hours of oral argument, the justices asked attorneys for Twitter, the US government and the family of Nawras Alassaf – a Jordanian citizen killed in the 2017 attack – how to weigh several factors that might determine Twitter’s level of legal responsibility, if any. But while the justices quickly identified what the relevant factors were, they seemed divided on how to analyze them. 

The court’s conservatives appeared more open to Twitter’s arguments that it is not liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett at one point theorizing point-by-point how such an opinion could be written and Justice Neil Gorsuch repeatedly offering Twitter what he believed to be a winning argument about how to read the statute. 

The panel’s liberals, by contrast, seemed uncomfortable with finding that Twitter should face no liability for hosting ISIS content. They pushed back on Twitter’s claims that the underlying law should only lead to liability if the help it gave to ISIS can be linked to the specific terrorist attack that ultimately harmed the plaintiffs.

The key issues at hand: The justices spent much of the time picking through the text of the Anti-Terrorism Act, the law that Twitter is accused of violating — especially the meaning of the words “knowingly” and “substantial.” 

The law says liability can be established for “any person who aids and abets, by knowingly providing substantial assistance, or who conspires with the person who committed such an act of international terrorism.” 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed unpersuaded by Twitter attorney Seth Waxman’s arguments that Twitter could have been liable if the company were warned that specific accounts were planning a specific attack, but that those were not the facts of the case and Twitter was therefore not liable in the absence of such activity and such warnings. 

Chief Justice John Roberts grappled with the meaning of “substantial” assistance: Hypothetically, he asked, would donating $100 to ISIS suffice, or $10,000?  

What’s next? The Taamneh case is viewed as a turning point for the future of the internet, because a ruling against Twitter could expose the platform – and numerous other websites – to new lawsuits based on their hosting of terrorist content in spite of their efforts to remove such material. 

While it’s too early to tell how the justices may decide the case, the questioning on Wednesday suggested some members of the court believe Twitter should bear some responsibility for indirectly supporting ISIS in general, even if the company may not have been responsible for the specific attack in 2017 that led to the current case. 

But a key question facing the court is whether the Anti-Terrorism Act is the law that can reach that issue – or alternatively, whether the justices can craft a ruling in such a way that it does. 

Rulings in the cases heard this week are expected by late June.

You can read more takeaways from today’s arguments here.

Oral arguments in the Twitter case wrap up

The Supreme Court today in Washington, DC.

The Supreme Court wrapped up arguments in the Twitter case about two and a half hours after the hearing started. Before the hearing ended, Twitter lawyer Seth Waxman offered a brief rebuttal to his opponents’ arguments. 

Justice Jackson hypothesizes why Twitter didn't take Gorsuch's lifeline

United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson poses for an official portrait at the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court building on October 7, 2022 in Washington, DC.

It may be perplexing why Twitter didn’t leap at Justice Neil Gorsuch’s offer of a way out by focusing on the ATA’s mention of “person,” but Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson appeared to reason out why Twitter — and the US government, as well — might be concerned about that.

In an exchange with US Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler, Jackson said: “I’m wondering whether the concern about that is, if you’re focusing on the person [who committed a terrorist act]… that it seems to take the focus away from the act itself … you could aid and abet a person who committed the act, even if it’s not with respect to that act.”

In other words, that interpretation of the law could significantly broaden ATA liability such that anyone could be sued for knowingly and substantially helping any person who ultimately went to commit some act of terrorism.