Families of the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub shooting on Monday filed a federal civil suit against Twitter, Facebook and Google for allegedly providing “material support” to the Islamic State and helping to radicalize shooter Omar Mateen.
In a complaint filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, the families of Tevin Crosby, Javier Jorge-Reyes and Juan Ramon Guerrero argue that the three web platforms “provided the terrorist group ISIS with accounts they use to spread extremist propaganda, raise funds, and attract new recruits.”
“Without Defendants Twitter, Facebook, and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible,” the lawsuit states.
Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard who pledged allegiance to ISIS, opened fire inside Orlando’s Pulse nightclub back in June; killing 49 people and wounding 53 others before being killed by a SWAT team to end the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
“Life has not been easy for me or my whole family,” Juan Guerrero, the father of one of the victims, told. “It is something I remember and have to live with every day.”
ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack via its Amaq news agency, although further investigation found that Mateen was not a member of the terror group but had been inspired by them in part through what he saw on the Internet.
“Mateen was radicalized by ISIS using the defendants tools for that express purpose,” Keith Altman, the lawyer representing the three families, told.
ISIS maintains an active presence on both Facebook and Twitter and also relies heavily on the Google-owned YouTube to post propaganda messages and videos of executions.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the interpretation of a provision tucked deep inside the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 called Section 230.
The language of Section 230 states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In layman’s terms, this basically means that sites like Facebook or YouTube are not liable for what their users post on their sites.
“Section 230 is a free pass to online service providers as long as they act only as a pass-through,” Mark Bartholomew, a professor at the University Of Buffalo School Of Law, told. “If you set up a place for people to talk, but don’t communicate on it yourself, then you are basically immune from prosecution.”
Section 230 of the CDA has protected social media sites in the past, but some lawyers and academics have begun to argue sites like Facebook may be violating the provision with their heavily-guarded algorithms. Despite these algorithms having come under fire before – from how Facebook curated its Trending Topics to accusations that YouTube was censoring people – this lawsuit alleges something much more nefarious behind one of the tech world’s most secretive processes.
“The defendants create unique content by matching ISIS postings with advertisements based upon information known about the viewer,” Altman said. “Furthermore, the defendants finance ISIS’s activities by sharing advertising revenue.”
Representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google did not immediately reply torequest for comment.
While these social platforms have cracked down and deactivated accounts affiliated with terrorist groups in the past, Altman argued that another account will almost immediately pop up and that companies think they’re not responsible because they are not ones producing the content.
“I wish we could get some regulations put in place,” Guerrero said. “They have to do something to prevent these people from doing things like this.”
Experts on Internet law say that while in the past courts have been reluctant to hold these platforms responsible for content posted on their sites, if the suit filed by the Pulse victims’ families is successful, it could drastically reshape the world of social media.
“It would be a big change because it would be the first crack at making these companies liable for what shows up on our feeds,” Bartholomew said. “It’ll be interesting to see how big that crack is, because right now it’s a door without many cracks.”