Israeli and American families of victims of Palestinian attacks have filed a US $1 billion lawsuit (£770m) against Facebook, claiming the social network is providing a platform for militants to spread incitement and violence, their lawyers have said.
Shurat Hadin, an Israeli legal advocacy group, filed the suit on behalf of the five families in New York federal court, alleging that Facebook is violating US anti-terrorism laws by providing a service to militant groups that assists them in “recruiting, radicalising, and instructing terrorists, raising funds, creating fear and carrying out attacks”.
The lawsuit focuses on the Islamic militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and which has fought three wars against Israel since the Palestinian group took the coastal territory in 2007.
Hamas, an armed group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has been designated a terrorist organisation by the United States.
The five families in the lawsuit lost relatives in attacks over the last two years. Four were dual Israeli-American citizens, while one victim was an American tourist.
“Facebook can’t sit in its stone tower in Palo Alto while blood is being spilled here on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has a social responsibility. It can’t serve as a social network for Hamas,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the Israeli lawyer who is representing the families.
The suit comes amid a 10-month outburst of Israeli-Palestinian violence that has seen scores of Palestinian attacks targeting Israeli civilians and troops.
Israel says the violence is being fuelled by a Palestinian campaign of incitement on social media while the Palestinians see it as the result of frustrations over nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation and a lack of hope for their own state.
Since mid-September, 34 Israelis and two American tourists have been killed in Palestinian attacks. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed during the same time. The majority of the Palestinians are said by Israel to have been attackers. The rest were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit is the family of Taylor Force, a 28-year-old US veteran who was visiting Israel in March when he was stabbed to death by a Palestinian.
Other plaintiffs include the family of Richard Lakin, a coexistence advocate who was shot on a Jerusalem bus last October, and relatives of Naftali Fraenkel, an Israeli teenager who was kidnapped and killed while hitch-hiking in the West Bank two years ago.
Facebook had no immediate comment on the lawsuit, saying it had not yet received a copy. But in a statement, it said people need to “feel safe” when using Facebook.
“There is no place for content encouraging violence, direct threats, terrorism or hate speech on Facebook,” it said. “We have a set of Community Standards to help people understand what is allowed on Facebook, and we urge people to use our reporting tools if they find content that they believe violates our standards so we can investigate and take swift action.”
The case is among a handful to argue that US anti-terrorism laws should take precedence over the provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which normally shield online companies for liability for what their users post.
It is not clear whether the lawsuit will succeed. The court may rule that freedom of expression precedes anti-terror laws. Moreover, while the attackers in the five incidents had links to Hamas, the militant group has stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attacks, suggesting the assailants acted on their own.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the case “appears to be a more compelling complaint” than other similar suits filed in recent months.
He said the most interesting argument is that beyond saying Facebook served as a conduit for hate speech, it says the service played a role in specific attacks. “This case will be well worth watching,” he said.
But Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US group promoting civil rights in the digital world, said he believed the lawsuit would fail.
He said the plaintiffs would have to prove that Facebook was “actively participating” in terrorist attacks. He also said the Communications Decency Act provides a “broad shield” of protection for online platforms like Facebook.
“What they are really asking for is for Facebook to not provide service to certain individuals or to certain parts of the world because they’re afraid of the speech that might result,” he said. Any attempt to impose broad filters on expression would “sweep up a whole lot of legitimate speech” as well, he added.