Google Still on the Hook in Terror Liability Case

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge on Wednesday refused to rule out the possibility that Google’s sharing of YouTube ad revenue with terrorists could make it liable for the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

U.S. District Judge Donna Ryu dismissed with prejudice the bulk of a lawsuit accusing Google of knowingly supporting the Islamic State terror group by letting it spread its message through YouTube videos.

But the judge gave plaintiffs a second chance to press claims that YouTube’s ad revenue sharing contributed to the November 2015 attacks that claimed 130 lives, including that of 23-year-old California native Nohemi Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s family sued Twitter, Google and Facebook in June 2016, claiming the social media and internet giants gave the Islamic State group a platform to spread its message, recruit members, and raise money.

Previous lawsuits seeking to hold tech companies liable for terror attacks have failed. Last year, a federal judge shot down a lawsuit claiming Twitter, Facebook, and Google enabled Hamas to radicalize the man who shot and killed five Dallas police officers in July 2016.

A YouTube sign is shown across the street from the company’s offices in San Bruno, Calif., on April 3, 2018.(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Earlier this year, the 9th Circuit upheld the dismissal of another lawsuit blaming the tech companies for a November 2015 attack that killed two U.S. contractors in Amman, Jordan.

Keith Altman, a Michigan-based lawyer representing the Gonzalez family, said the judge got it wrong when she shot down his argument that a 2016 law nullifies tech companies’ immunity from claims based on user-created content.

In a previous ruling, Ryu rejected the Gonzalez family’s argument that the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) overrides tech companies’ shield of immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Finding that Congress expressly voided an immunity provision for foreign countries in JASTA, the judge found no indication that lawmakers also intended to nullify a website’s immunity from claims related to user-created content. In her 29-page ruling Wednesday, Ryu declined to rehash the issue because no motion for reconsideration was filed.

Altman said he intends to appeal the ruling, but he is not yet sure if he will take the judge up on her offer to file an amended complaint first.

“This has had no effect on our resolve to push these matters forward, see that Google, Facebook and Twitter act reasonably and responsibly,” Altman said. “It’s time they stop having the Get Out of Jail Free card that Section 230 provides them.”

Ryu dismissed the Gonzalez family’s third amended complaint for several reasons. First, she found that Google could not be considered a speaker or publisher of content posted by the Islamic State group and therefore cannot not be held liable for that content.

Additionally, she found the plaintiffs failed to adequately allege proximate cause, or a direct link between Google’s actions and the terror attacks in Paris.

The plaintiffs claimed that the Islamic State group successfully used YouTube to recruit Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was considered the “operational leader” of the Paris attacks. However, Ryu found the complaint lacked specifics about how the Belgium-based Jihadist group, the Zerkani Network, used YouTube to recruit Abaaoud.

Ryu also found allegations that terrorists actively used YouTube “do not support a finding that Google’s provision of the YouTube platform to ISIS ‘had any direct relationship with the injuries’ that plaintiffs suffered.”

The judge further held the plaintiffs failed to show how YouTube’s sharing of ad revenue directly contributed to the Paris attacks. Citing the 9th Circuit’s January 2018 decision in Fields v. Twitter, Ryu concluded that courts need not find that “any reckless contribution to a terrorist group or affiliate, no matter its attenuation, must result in civil liability.”

Nevertheless, Ryu granted the Gonzalez family leave to amend their ad revenue sharing claims. All other claims against Google were dismissed with prejudice.

Google attorney Brian Willen, of Wilson Sonsini in New York, deferred comment to Google’s corporate media team, which did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

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