Was Shurat Hadin’s courts and legislation campaign against social-media incitement a key catalyst on the eventual path to Google, Facebook and co. finally taking policing their content seriously? According to Shurat Hadin director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, “Our law group played a key role in identifying...the issue, as well as drawing public attention to it.”
On June 18, Google’s general counsel announced that the company is implementing new methods of cracking down on extremist content uploaded to YouTube.
Darshan-Leitner said the crackdown meant Google is utilizing its existing technology to “filter out the terrorist videos and messages of incitement to violence that had previously enjoyed the free run of its platform, as well desisting from commercializing these dangerous presentations.”
The legal group said that “social-media platforms are brazenly utilized by all of the terrorist organizations to recruit for members, organize their violent operations, raise funds and disseminate their extremist incitement and messages.
“In recent years the social-media services have become a requisite component of international terrorism just as weapons, training, funding, safe houses and explosives are,” it added.
“We believe our groundbreaking lawsuits filed a year and half ago and still being filed, both for injunctions and compensation under the US Anti-Terrorism Act...
put Paolo Alto on the defensive and compelled elected officials to start to think about widespread regulations.
We were out there way before anyone else,” Darshan-Leitner stated.
In the past year, Shurat Hadin has brought civil actions on behalf of terrorists’ victims against Google, Facebook and Twitter, and it is organizing additional suits against other Palo Alto companies.
These include several families of ISIS victims, such as California student Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in the November 13, 2015, Paris attack, and Alexander Pinczowski, murdered in the Brussels Airport attack on March 18, 2016.
Additionally, suits have been filed by the legal group concerning attacks in Israel on behalf of Connecticut teacher Richard Lakin, who was stabbed to death on a Jerusalem bus on October 25, 2015, and Texas native Taylor Force, who was murdered in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2016.
To date, Shurat Hadin has lost in these cases, including the Lakin and Force cases, or is still in the midst of pursuing them at the trial or appeal level.
The regular problem Shurat Hadin and any other group who tries to sue social-media platforms for incitement, runs into in US courts is the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Until now, the Communications Decency Act has blocked any cases against social-media platforms on the grounds that the platforms are just conduits and cannot be held responsible for third-party posts.
Shurat Hadin and some others had pushed the envelope asserting that the Anti-Terrorism Act was a way around the Communication Decency Act.
They said they were not suing social media for posting content, but for facilitating terrorists’ logistical needs. Their argument was that if posting that content did facilitate logistics for terrorist acts, it could not be prevented by free speech principles or hiding behind the idea that platforms are not responsible for third parties.
Shurat Hadin noted that US courts have already ruled that banks can be held liable for facilitating logistics for terrorists by being a conduit for third party terrorists’ funds, even if the banks are unaware of the purpose of the funds.
If that was true, then social-media platforms could be held liable for unknowingly being used as a planning and recruiting conduit by third parties.
Even as these cases have not yet borne fruit, Shurat Hadin said, “the victims contend that the fear of massive civil liability presented by the lawsuits and the threat of criminal prosecution... is finally forcing Google to reign in the benefits and services being provided gratis to the terrorist groups.”
Shurat Hadin recognizes that other powerful forces, such as corporate boycotts starting in March, and political pressure after fake news from social media was accused of impacting the US and European elections, may be responsible for turning the tide against social media.
Still, the legal group said, “We know that Google had teams of attorneys... advising them... that our theory of ATA civil and criminal liability concerning the provision of material support and services to ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah... is basically sound and could subject them to massive liability.”
“The Israeli terror victims as well as the ISIS victims we represent contend that the change in policy is a direct result of the lawsuits they have filed against Google.
They believe had Google and other social-media platforms blocked the terrorist organizations from utilizing their services their loved ones would still be alive,” said Shurat Hadin.
Besides the courts-angle, Darshan- Leitner said her organization is in the process of meeting with elected officials in Washington to urge legislation to “restrict the free reign of social-media services being provided to designated terrorist groups.”
Predicting that both the US and Europe are going to hit social media with regulations, she said that, “We feel very strongly that we were catalysts on this issue.”
She said that, “Perhaps Google finally now understands that designated terrorist organizations such as ISIS could never have organized themselves, disseminated their message or recruited members without the aid of social media.”
Until recently, “Google’s policy seemed to be merely to turn a blind eye to the uploading of extremist videos on YouTube; let’s hope that Google really acts on its words going forwards and other social-media companies follow suit,” she said.