Privacy and free speech may be under threat from an unlikely source – the bereft spouse of a husband in a heart-rending incident that occurred half a world away.
This intriguing (and possibly alarming) development, which has grave implications for an entire media industry, arises from a lawsuit recently filed by the widow of an American killed in Jordan. Tamara Fields accuses the social media company, Twitter, of giving a voice to Islamic State, and thus being partly culpable for his death. In the US, the land of lawyers, a suit being filed is hardly news. But the fact that it relates to an incident in a faraway land, and involves tangential action from a renowned social media site, makes the fallout from the court action potentially catastrophic for social media companies worldwide – if the connection between social media sites and terrorism is upheld by a court.
The man who was killed in November, Lloyd Fields, was an American contractor training police in Jordan. He was among five people killed in a “lone wolf” attack at the police training center by Jordanian police officer Anwar Abu Zeid. According to his wife, Tamara, and as stated in the suit, Twitter knowingly gave the militant Islamist group “unfettered” use its network to spread propaganda, raise money and attract recruits. According to the complaint,
“Without Twitter, the explosive growth of ISIS over the last few years into the most feared terrorist group in the world would not have been possible.”
Mrs. Fields alleges, through her lawyers, that Twitter violated the federal Anti-Terrorism Act by providing virulent material access to the terrorist group, and is seeking triple damages. As this is believed to be the first such case citing the federal law, and because the link to social media culpability may be a reach, she is facing an uphill fight. But the fact that the result could lead to more calls for social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook to take down posts associated with terrorist groups gives the move significant gravitas.
Twitter, as expected, denies any wrong- doing while expressing sympathy for the defendant’s plight,
“While we believe the lawsuit is without merit, we are deeply saddened to hear of this family’s terrible loss. Violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and, like other social networks, our rules make that clear.”
On this basis, it will wage a vigorous defense that, as noted above, has serious industry-wide implications, and thus will be closely watched by social media companies and hungry lawyers alike.
Hot on the heels of this lawsuit, politicians and pundits alike are weighing in on the brewing controversy. Gary Osen, an attorney who in 2014 won a lawsuit against Jordan’s Arab Bank for abetting terrorist group Hamas by handling funds and shielding transactions, thinks the Field case falls under the auspices of the Anti-Terrorism Act, but admits that proving knowledge or “willful blindness” may be difficult. The White House, which has been pressing Silicon Valley of late to cooperate more with the government, also has a vested interest in this scenario, and will carefully monitor the direction it takes.
Meanwhile, David Greene, civil liberties director of the EFF, opined that the Fields case breaks new ground,
“With this, the claim is not that you are reaching out or doing something special [for an entity identified as a terrorist group]. This is that they (Twitter) need to stop providing (Islamic State) with the same service they provide the rest of the world.”
For the record, and perhaps highlighting Twitter’s impact on terrorist recruiting. is the fact that the Brookings Institution think tank has estimated that Islamic State supporters operated at least 46,000 Twitter accounts between September and December 2014.
Twitter contends that Field’s action amounts to censorship, and could hamper efforts to allow free speech and the free-flow of information. It just might be that the Internet, which is widely used by terrorists throughout the Middle East, may find itself throttled somehow – if not in the interest of security, then to save itself from being ravished by the courts.
We must think long and hard about the ramifications here, which could inadvertently provide ISIS and other terrorist organizations a victory in court that they could not achieve on the battlefield.