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Can A Civil Lawsuit Keep Terrorists Off The Internet?

When prosecutors failed to gather enough evidence to file criminal charges against famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury for raping and sexually harassing numerous women, it was a civil lawsuit that took Choudhury to task for his actions to the tune of $7.5 million.

Likewise, it was civil lawsuits that dealt significant blows to the Catholic Church in cases of child sex abuse, and to police departments in cases of police brutality where criminal actions provided little to no deterrence.

While a criminal lawsuit punishes the guilty individual by placing him or her behind bars, a civil lawsuit seeks money damages for bad behavior. As a result, civil lawsuits often prove more effective in rendering justice to the victims and more importantly, stopping the bad behavior from continuing.

Can a civil lawsuit have the power to get terrorists off the internet?

Reynaldo Gonzalez’s daughter Nohemi was the only American killed in the Paris attacks last year. Nohemi, a design student at Cal State Long Beach, was eating dinner a La Belle Equipe when two gunman opened fire inside the restaurant. Last week, Mr. Gonzalez filed a civil lawsuit against Google, Facebook and Twitter for their roles in the attacks.

At first glance, Mr. Gonzalez’s decision to sue three of the largest tech companies on the planet for spreading terrorism seems like a bizarre, and perhaps even foolish move. The 1996 Communications Decency Act has been used in the past to shield social media sites from such lawsuits. The law states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Naturally, Twitter and Facebook have already given statements to discredit Mr. Gonzalez’s lawsuit, and Google has pointed out that the company maintains “clear policies prohibiting terrorist recruitment and content intending to incite violence.”

According to Mr. Gonzalez, however, these websites have become tools for terrorist recruitment, and they could do more to stop it. “For years, defendants have knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use their social networks as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits,” the lawsuit alleges.

Mr. Gonzalez goes further, asserting that Youtube, a Google subsidiary, has reaped ad profits from ISIS content, including beheading videos. His lawsuit claims, “without defendants Twitter, Facebook, and Google (YouTube), the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most-feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible.”

Regardless of Mr. Gonzalez’ success in obtaining compensation from these companies, his lawsuit calls attention to one powerful approach to preventing future terrorist attacks. Social media websites need to be held accountable for enabling members of ISIS to communicate and recruit publicly, particularly when they are profiting off of the content.

The same day that Mr. Gonzalez filed his lawsuit against Twitter, Facebook and Google, a member of ISIS killed a Paris police commander and his wife while streaming a video of himself on Facebook Live. In his video, the killer called upon his social media friends to carry out future attacks on behalf of ISIS.

Sources: Associated Press, “Paris attack victim’s family sues Google, Facebook and Twitter for letting ISIS grow on social media,” New York Daily News, 15 June 2016.

Chrisafis, Angelique, and Kim Willsher, “French police officer and partner murdered in ‘odious terrorist attack,'” The Guardian, 14 June 2016.

Drury, Flora, “Paris attack victim’s father, 23, sues Google, Facebook and Twitter claiming they ‘let terrorism spread,'” Daily Mail, 15 June 2016.

Guynn, Jessica, “Paris terrorist attacks victim’s family sues Facebook, Google and Twitter,” USA Today, 16 June 2016.

Klayman, Ben, “Family of student killed in Paris attacks sues Facebook, Twitter and Google,” Reuters, 16 June 2016.

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