Court Confirms Ruling Against Tech Companies In Suit Over Istanbul Attack

A federal appellate court on Monday refused to reconsider an earlier ruling that allows a terrorist victim's family members to proceed with claims that Google, Twitter and Facebook aided the growth of terrorism.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals didn't give a reason for its refusal to revisit the case.

The move leaves in place a ruling that allows family members of Jordanian citizen Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in a January 2017 terrorist attack in Istanbul, to proceed with a lawsuit against Google, Twitter and Facebook.

The family sued the tech companies over the attack, alleging (among other claims) that they violated the Anti-Terrorism Act -- a law that enables people harmed by international terrorism to sue anyone who knowingly assists foreign terrorist organizations.

A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, but a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit revived the case in June.

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Those judges noted that the family members specifically alleged that the companies provided services “that were central to ISIS’s growth and expansion,” and that the companies “allowed ISIS accounts and content to remain public even after receiving complaints about ISIS’s use of their platforms.”

“Not every transaction with a designated terrorist organization will sufficiently state a claim for aiding-and-abetting liability,” the judges wrote. “But given the facts alleged here, we conclude the ... plaintiffs adequately state a claim for aiding-and-abetting liability.”

Google, Twitter and Facebook then urged the appellate court to reconsider the ruling, arguing it marked an “unprecedented approach” that goes against traditional principles regarding the meaning of “aiding and abetting.”

“Until now, no court has allowed an [Anti-Terrorism Act] claim to proceed where the defendant provided only standardized services, common to billions of users, that supporters of a terrorist organization allegedly used to benefit that organization,” the companies wrote in papers filed in August.

They sought a new hearing by the same three judges who originally decided the case, or a hearing in front of at least 11 of the circuit court's judges.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce backed that request, arguing that the appellate panel's decision expands the scope of the Anti-Terrorism Act “far beyond anything that Congress intended.”

“The panel’s reasoning means that if a business recognizes that somewhere in its customer base -- which for many companies includes tens or hundreds of millions of people -- unidentified individuals are using the business’s products or services in a way that significantly furthers terrorists’ goals, then the company may be subject to secondary liability,” the business organization wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in August. “And the business would be liable even though it did not know the specifics of any terrorist’s plans, did not know who among its customer base may be a terrorist, had absolutely no intent to aid international terrorism or to associate itself with, or provide assistance to, the terrorist’s goals -- and, to the contrary, took affirmative steps to stop terrorists from using its services.”

The same three judges who revived the claims stemming from the Istanbul bombing also refused to reinstate lawsuits brought by victims and family members of victims of two other terrorist attacks -- one in Paris and the other in San Bernardino, California. The lawsuit stemming from the Paris attack was brought against Google only, while the one stemming from the San Bernardino shooting was brought against all three.

The victims in those cases have asked the 9th Circuit to reconsider those decisions. The requests are still pending.

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