Plaintiffs sought $3 billion in damages from social media giant for allowing Hamas to use its platform to encourage and celebrate terrorist attacks in Israel, but Manhattan court says 1996 law regulating internet content shields organization from civil liability.
NEW YORK – Facebook Inc on Wednesday defeated an appeal by American victims of Hamas attacks in Israel, who sought to hold the company liable for providing the group a social media platform to further its terroristic goals.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”), a 1996 law regulating internet content, shielded Facebook from civil liability.
It also declined to consider the plaintiffs’ foreign law claims, noting that most plaintiffs, including relatives and estates of victims, said they were Americans living in Israel.
“This a tragic victory for the terrorist groups who now have a court sanctioned license to continue to organize, recruit, fundraisers and publicize their extremist violence on the social media platforms,” said an attorney for the plaintiffs, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Shurat HaDin Law Center.
“Unfortunately, the majority decision has expanded CDA section 230 far beyond its original intent. This is judicial legislation of the worst sort and endangers real people’s lives,” she said.
Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Wednesday’s decision is a fresh setback to efforts to hold companies such as Facebook and Twitter Inc liable for failing to better police users’ online speech.
It upheld a May 2017 dismissal by U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn.
The plaintiffs originally sought $3 billion in damages from Facebook, for allowing Hamas to use its platform to encourage terrorist attacks in Israel, celebrate successful attacks, and generally support violence toward that country.
Their complaint described Hamas attacks against five Americans, four of whom died, in Israel from 2014 to 2016.
The plaintiffs included the parents of U.S. veteran Taylor Force, who was stabbed to death at the age of 28 in a 2016 terror attack in Jaffa, and the son of 76-year-old Richard Lakin, an American-Israeli former educator who was murdered in a shooting attack on bus in Jerusalem in 2015.
In seeking to overturn that dismissal, the plaintiffs said Facebook functioned as a matchmaker between Hamas and people receptive to its messages, and should not be immune from liability as a mere “publisher” of Hamas’ content.
Circuit Judge Christopher Droney, however, said it would turn the CDA “upside down” to suggest that Facebook’s having become an “especially adept” publisher exposed it to liability.
He also refused to hold Facebook liable because its “friend” and content-based algorithms might have helped direct people interested in Hamas.
“Merely arranging and displaying others’ content to users of Facebook through such algorithms – even if the content is not actively sought by those users – is not enough to hold Facebook responsible as the ‘developer’ or ‘creator’ of that content,” Droney wrote.
Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, part of the three-judge appeals court panel, dissented from the algorithms discussion.
He said Congress did not consider how broadly to immunize social media companies, when it passed the CDA to regulate online pornography, and might rethink how to treat those accused of encouraging terrorism, propaganda and extremism.
“Over the past two decades the Internet has outgrown its swaddling clothes,” Katzmann wrote. “It is fair to ask whether the rules that governed its infancy should still oversee its adulthood.”
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Robert Tolchin, praised Katzmann “for his insightful analysis with what is wrong in the majority opinion,” adding that his clients “intend to move for a rehearing by the full court and anticipate that Judge Katzmann’s views will prevail at that level.”
The U.S. Department of State has designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization since 1997.