As reported by the Los Angles Times on May 3rd 2017, “relatives of the victims of the San Bernardino terrorist attack filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against Twitter, Google and Facebook.” The families are arguing that the shooter in their neighborhood could never have become “radicalized” if the Islamic State was not allowed to spread extremist content through popular tech companies and search engines in the United States, such as the ones named in this case.
This case is very interesting because it has nothing to do with the shooting itself, instead the families are questioning why/how American companies could allow known terrorists to use their platform, service or product in the first place. They are asking the courts to decide if tech companies are criminally negligent or liable for terror attacks, if terrorists use their service to coordinate them?
Believe it or not, this is not the first time popular tech companies have been accused of sponsoring terrorism. Early in 2016, Twitter itself was found guilty of this in Turkish courts and subsequently fined for it. However, Twitter has always refuted such accusations and has gone on to launch a counter suit against the Government of Turkey. The company has also refused to acknowledge or pay any fines imposed upon them.
What are the facts of the case?
It is a known fact that in their early days, the Islamic State primarily used Twitter to post and spread content. According to rough estimates from various intelligence organizations around the world, there were potentially tens of thousands of Islamic State Twitter accounts in existence at any given moment in time. Members of the IS have also been known to use Facebook, YouTube, Google, MSN WordPress – et cetera – in order to post content and/or recruit online.
However, while it is an indisputable fact that terrorist organizations use popular social media platforms to spread material, it does not necessarily mean these companies can really do anything to stop it. Every company will tell you that they will delete terrorist/extremist accounts as soon as they learn about their existence, but they can not possibly control whom around the world chooses to sign up for a free account at any given moment in time. For example, one person can theoretically make hundreds of accounts by themselves in a day if they really wanted to and Google has no way of knowing every persons intentions when signing up.
As for the “morality” of the case, this has been addressed to a degree within different branches of the United States Government before. For example, in 2016 the FBI advised the US Pentagon not to unleash computer Malware against known members of the Islamic State online. This was because the FBI wanted to continue to conduct surveillance on terrorists targets online, rather than crash their computers and take them offline. The FBI feared that by doing so, the Government risked losing tabs on dangerous people going forward in the future.
So it became a moral question, is it better to freely let a terrorist spread radical material online so that the authorities can monitor/track their activity or should every terrorist be deleted offline entirely? Though members of the FBI and Pentagon may have disagreed on this, the Pentagon eventually decided to launch Malware against Islamic State targets in the early months of 2016.
Regardless which side of the moral debate you find yourself on, the fact of the matter is that Federal Organizations have already made the conscious decision to allow at least some Islamic State accounts to remain up and running online. This would suggest that Google, Facebook and Twitter would be found innocent in US Federal Courts, considering that the United States Federal Government has personally condoned some of the same activity these companies are being accused of in this lawsuit.
This story is yet another in a long list of technological related cases, laws and headlines to come out of the San Bernadino shooting. As is evidence by the case in question today, for however tragic the incident was, for better or worse it has also marked a historical turning point in in regards to the interpretation of many US technological laws.