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Twitter is not legally responsible for the rise of ISIS, rules California district court

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A lawsuit accusing Twitter of providing material support to ISIS has been dismissed by a California District Court. First filed in January, the lawsuit argued ISIS's persistent presence on Twitter constituted material support for the terror group, and sought to hold Twitter responsible for an ISIS-linked attack on that basis.

Filed by the family of an American contractor named Lloyd Fields, the lawsuit sought damages from an ISIS-linked attack in Jordan that claimed Fields' life. The plaintiff's initial complaint alleged widespread fundraising and recruitment through the platform, attributing 30,000 foreign actors recruited through ISIS Twitter accounts in 2015 alone.

The judge assigned to the case was ultimately not swayed by that reasoning, finding that the plaintiffs had not offered a convincing argument for holding Twitter liable. The plaintiff will have the chance to submit a modified version of the complaint within 20 days of the order, the second such modification ordered by the judge.

The plaintiffs will have 20 days to submit a modified complaint

"Apart from the private nature of Direct Messaging, plaintiffs identify no other way in which their Direct Messaging theory seeks to treat Twitter as anything other than a publisher of information provided by another information content provider," the ruling reads. At the same time, even the private nature of Twitter's Direct Messaging feature "does not remove the transmission of such messages from the scope of publishing activity under section 230(c)(1)."

The lawsuit presented a major test of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, commonly known as the Safe Harbor clause. The clause protects online services from liability for speech published on their network, like a libelous statement in the comments section of a news article. The user who published the comment can still be held responsible, but Section 230 prohibits legal action against the website itself. That same clause has long been used to protect platforms like Facebook and Twitter from liability for illegal activity within their networks.

The plaintiffs argued Twitter was not covered by Section 230, under the logic that its continued provision of accounts to ISIS counted as an act of publishing or speech. According to the plantiffs, the act of provisioning accounts to ISIS members constituted a material support, much like a newspaper choosing to publish a particular writer. But the judge was not swayed by that argument, finding that "courts have repeatedly described publishing activity under section 230(c)(1) as including decisions about what third-party content may be posted online," citing Klayman v. Zuckerberg and Doe v. Myspace in support. As a result, the court rejected the plaintiff's argument and affirmed Twitter's protections under Section 230.

Twitter has drawn significant criticism from some observers for its perceived inability to consistently locate and ban ISIS-linked accounts. Twitter has largely dismissed that criticism, claiming it has shut down as many as 10,000 of the accounts in a single day. Brookings Institute scholar Benjamin Wittes has put forward a detailed argument that Twitter could be held liable for material support of ISIS, although he ultimately concluded that the Fields case should still be dismissed.