Today, a federal court in the Eastern District of New York dismissed a lawsuit seeking to hold Facebook liable for a wave of violence in Israel in 2015. According to the lawsuit, the violence was encouraged and coordinated by a handful of Hamas-linked Facebook accounts, in what some called “the Facebook Intifada.” The lawsuit sought a court order forcing Facebook to cease providing services to named terrorists, as well as monetary damages up to $1 billion.
In a ruling today, the judge found that Facebook cannot be held liable for those accounts, dismissing two separate complaints brought on those grounds. The result is a legal win for Facebook that could have broader implications for web platforms around the world.
“the Facebook Intifada”
The dismissal hinges on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the much-cited Safe Harbor clause that protects online platforms from many forms of liability. The court ultimately found that Facebook’s failure to ban Hamas-related accounts fell within Section 230 protections.
“Facebook's choices as to who may use its platform are inherently bound up in its decisions as to what may be said on its platform,” the ruling reads, citing established protections for speech. Since Facebook is protected from civil claims against particular speech acts on its network, the judge reasoned, the company is also protected from claims against who it allows on the network.
The result is a major vindication for Section 230 as it applies to terrorism cases. Some legal experts have argued Section 230 may not protect platforms in cases of material support to terrorist groups, on the grounds that access to social networks provides a tangible communications benefit. A number of lawsuits have sought to make that case, most recently against Twitter, but it has yet to find favor with the courts.
In a statement, Facebook applauded the decision, while highlighting its anti-terrorism moderation efforts. "We appreciate the court's consideration on this matter,” a spokesperson said. “Our Community Standards make clear that there is no place on Facebook for groups that engage in terrorist activity or for content that expresses support for such activity, and we take swift action to remove this content when it’s reported to us. We sympathize with the victims and their families."
Update 3:51PM ET: Updated with Facebook statement.