May 24, 2023

The Supreme Court's Section 230 decision.

Plus, a question about the origins of our name.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

We're breaking down the SCOTUS ruling in two social media cases. Plus, a question about the origins of our name, and a shock poll from Tuesday's newsletter.

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Quick hits.

  1. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will be officially announcing his presidential campaign on Twitter at 6 p.m. EST alongside Twitter CEO Elon Musk. (The announcement)
  2. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the dangers of social media for children, highlighting its negative impact on mental health. (The warning)
  3. The Office of the Attorney General in Illinois said it has uncovered 2,000 cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy over the last seven decades. (The abuse)
  4. House leadership in both parties advised members they may be kept in session through Memorial Day as debt ceiling negotiations continue. (The timeline)
  5. Former President Trump's criminal trial for alleged hush money payments will take place in March of 2024, in the middle of primary season. (The trial)

Today's topic.

Twitter v. Taamneh and Gonzalez v. Google LLC. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled against the family of a 2017 ISIS attack victim who had sued Twitter, Facebook, and Google in an effort to hold them liable for allowing ISIS to use their platforms. The court ruled unanimously that the lawsuit could not move forward. Along with that ruling, the justices sent Gonzalez v. Google LLC, a similar case, back to the lower courts. That decision sidestepped any major changes to the scope of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields tech companies from liability for content published by users.

The Twitter v. Taamneh case was brought after Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian citizen, was killed in an ISIS attack. Alassaf's family, the Taamnehs, sued under the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which prohibits aiding and abetting international terrorism. The Taamneh family argued Twitter and other tech companies knew their platforms had helped ISIS recruit new members but failed to take action to keep them off their platform. Similarly, in Gonzalez v. Google, the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, France, sued Google and YouTube. The Gonzalez family says Google allowed ISIS to recruit on their channels, ultimately leading to Nohemi’s killing.

The Gonzalez v. Google case was particularly notable because the family argued that Google, which owns YouTube, was liable for the algorithm that recommended ISIS videos, something the plaintiffs argued constituted Google's own speech. This created a separate legal issue from Taamneh on the question of whether Google's algorithm was also protected by Section 230.

We previously covered these cases in February here.

Lower courts had ruled in favor of Google, saying that Section 230 protects them from any liability for third-party content on their service. All the justices seemed skeptical of changing that liability shield during oral arguments, though they came to their conclusions through different reasoning.

In the unanimous opinion in Twitter v. Taamneh, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that bad actors being able to use online platforms for illegal and sometimes terrible ends does not make the platforms culpable. Otherwise, he argued, the same could be said of cell phones, email, or the internet generally, according to a SCOTUSblog summary of the ruling.

Instead, Thomas wrote that in order to prove tech companies were aiding and abetting terrorism, the family of Alassaf needed to show that those companies failed to keep ISIS from using the platform and that there was a direct link between the tech companies and the attacks that killed their family member. They didn't show that, but rather observed that the tech companies treated ISIS like other users — "arm's length, passive, and largely indifferent."

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a concurring opinion, though she left the door open for future litigation, writing that other cases presenting different allegations may lead to different conclusions. The court then ruled that Gonzalez v. Google presented a similar fact pattern and should be sent back to the lower courts for re-evaluation, given the court’s ruling in Taamneh v. Twitter. The court effectively ruled that Section 230's scope should be left to Congress or could be challenged in other cases, but punted on any ruling that would either alter or reaffirm the law.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the right and left to the court’s rulings in these cases. Then my take.


Many commentators on both the left and the right are supportive of the Supreme Court's decision not to rewrite or fundamentally alter Section 230. While each side’s reasoning is different, there is widespread relief about the court's decisions in both the unanimous ruling and the brief sending Gonzalez v. Google back to the lower courts.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are relieved by the ruling, arguing that the court made the right decision and preserved a free and open internet.
  • Some said Section 230 is only safe for now, and future challenges could be coming.
  • Others argued that conservatives should be relieved, and any ruling against Section 230 could have backfired on them.

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown said Section 230 is safe for now.

"Advocates for free speech, an open internet, and sensible tech policy were anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court's decision” in a case that “gave the Court a chance to weigh in on a controversial law called Section 230. Now that ruling is here—and it's good news for civil libertarians concerned about Section 230's fate," Brown wrote. Section 230 is the internet's First Amendment, and “its haters” want to give states more ability to bring civil suits against tech companies for all sorts of alleged harms.

"Doing so would, of course, seriously weaken the incentives and protections for free speech online," she wrote. "On Thursday, the Supreme Court effectively sidestepped the issues of algorithms and Section 230 immunity in a narrow decision that only addressed the underlying claim that Google was guilty of violating Section 2333 of the federal Anti-Terrorism Act." It also ruled unanimously in Twitter v. Taamneh that Twitter was not guilty of aiding and abetting terrorists. "That doesn't mean Section 230 is safe from Supreme Court rulings that it doesn't apply to algorithmic recommendations, merely that the issue was avoided for now."

For the American Enterprise Institute, Shane Tews and Clay Calvert said internet users and platforms can breathe a sigh of relief.

"One important facet of the social media platforms’ victory in Taamneh was the Court’s conclusion that algorithmic recommendations of content do not 'constitute active, substantial assistance.' As Justice Thomas wrote, 'the algorithms appear agnostic as to the nature of the content, matching any content (including ISIS’ content) with any user who is more likely to view that content. The fact that these algorithms matched some ISIS content with some users thus does not convert defendants’ passive assistance into active abetting.' That’s great news [for] all social media platforms today that depend on such 'agnostic' algorithms to helpfully connect users with content based on their past searches and views," they wrote.

The court rinsed and repeated the same logic to punt on Section 230 in Gonzalez, though that issue "will likely rise again" in litigation around another case. For now, the court left Section 230 "fully intact" and declined "to mettle with a statute that has allowed the internet over the past quarter-plus century to grow into a vast (albeit sometimes inevitably imperfect) marketplace of ideas. Without it, the internet would be a one-sided experience of marketing propaganda, rather than the interconnected exchange of information across the globe."

In National Review, Bobby Miller said "SCOTUS gets its right" on Section 230.

"In February, I wrote about how efforts to convince the Supreme Court to roll back Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 in Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh could backfire on conservatives. Well, it looks like we can exhale a little. Today, the Court declined to revisit the foundational internet law," he said. "A significant scaling back in the legal immunities granted to online platforms could have triggered a desire for increased censorship on the part of Big Tech, leading to an increase in content moderation.

"This could have resulted in social-media companies imposing more restrictions on conservative discourse, not fewer. Rest assured, this is no longer a danger … for now. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Section 230’s critics on the right refrain from resurrecting this misguided endeavor," Miller wrote.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left are celebrating that the court didn't "break" the internet.
  • Some said these rulings were a major win for Big Tech that goes beyond just Section 230.
  • Others expressed skepticism that this is really a "win" for Big Tech, suggesting Section 230 could still be at risk.

In Vox, Ian Millhiser said the Supreme Court decided not to break the internet.

"Clarence Thomas did something right, for a change," Millhiser said. "Both Justice Thomas’s unanimous opinion in Twitter v. Taamneh and the Court’s brief, unanimous, and unsigned opinion in Gonzalez v. Google show admirable restraint. The justices add clarity to a 2016 anti-terrorism law that, if read broadly, could have made tech companies whose products form the backbone of modern-day communications liable for every violent act committed by the terrorist group ISIS." The plaintiffs attempted a "breathtaking argument," and as Thomas wrote, it would imply 'any U.S. national victimized by an ISIS attack could bring the same claim based on the same services allegedly provided to ISIS.'

"Though the plaintiffs’ theory rests on a plausible reading of the vaguely worded JASTA statute, the Court’s decision establishes that, at the very least, a company has to do more than provide its product to any customer in the world — including customers who may use that product for evil purposes — in order to be held liable for a terrorist act," Millhiser said.

In The Washington Post, Will Oremus said these rulings were a win for tech, and not just on Section 230.

This is a "blow to the idea, gaining adherents in Congress and the White House, that today’s social media platforms ought to be held responsible when their software amplifies harmful content. The Supreme Court ruled that they should not, at least under U.S. terrorism law," Oremus said. Lawmakers have increasingly worried that social media companies are more than "neutral conduits for speech," and their roles can actively shape online communication. Thus, they need regulation. "The court ruled, however, that those decisions are not enough to find the platforms had aided and abetted ISIS in violation of U.S. law."

While Thomas has expressed interest in revisiting Section 230, "which he sees as giving tech companies too much leeway to suppress or take down speech they deem to violate their rules," his "apparent dislike" of content moderation is also consistent with today’s opinion, which "will reassure social media companies that they won’t necessarily face legal consequences for being too permissive on harmful speech, at least when it comes to terrorist propaganda." There was also "no dissent to Thomas’s view that an algorithm’s recommendation wasn’t enough to hold a social media company liable for a terrorist attack."

In Bloomberg, Stephen L. Carter questioned whether this was the big win for tech many commentators say it is.

"I’m not so sure Big Tech won much at all. All the justices really did was kick the can down the road a bit. When the issue comes before them again — and it will, probably soon — there are at least four justices who seem willing to weaken or eliminate the liability shield," he wrote. For all we know, the next case in federal court could find a sympathetic judge who "decides that Section 230 does not in fact shield internet service providers from liability when their content causes harm.

"There isn't a "single word" in the court's decisions to serve as a restraint. "Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s most senior member, is a well-known skeptic of the view that Section 230 renders the ISPs immune from suit. The court’s newest member, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, has questioned whether it is 'consistent with what Congress intended' to use the provision to protect ISPs from suits when they actually promote (as opposed to merely transmit) troubling content. Other justices, particularly Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito, also seemed to disagree with the broad claims of protection made by the ISPs."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • This is basically what I predicted in February.
  • I am glad this was the outcome of the case.
  • None of this means Congress shouldn't take action.

When we covered these cases in February, we focused specifically on Section 230 and the arguments for and against it. We did so partly because of what you see today: There is a lot of bipartisan consensus on how the Supreme Court should rule in these cases, even if there is disagreement about what Section 230 does and how it might be improved.

In that piece, I wrote the following:

"In the Gonzalez case, I think my position is rather straightforward: The Court should stay out of the way. Section 230 is quite clear as it’s written, and it seems obvious to me that it protects what YouTube did in this case, and that the line of causation that follows from its algorithm is specious at best. Most of the justices seem to view it this way, too, and I don't think we're going to see this case upend the law or how Section 230 functions."

So, I got all of that right. I'm also glad to see the justices rule the way they did in Taamneh, and very glad to see them effectively kick the Section 230 can down the road.

I was fascinated by how much Thomas leaned on the old "common law" in his opinion, quoting a 1795 English treatise on what constituted aiding and abetting. That treatise said a person “present, aiding and abetting the fact to be done" could be held liable for the criminal act of another. But Thomas also noted that this was obviously never meant to be boundless. As Millhiser put it, a reasonable expansion of such an interpretation could mean Ford is liable for selling a truck to a man who then ran over and killed another person.

Just as I wrote back in February, I am an ardent supporter of Section 230. I believe it preserves an open and free internet, and I'm relieved the Supreme Court did not try to tinker with it here. If Section 230 is going to change, it should happen because of an act of Congress. And in that space, there is probably some wiggle room. Congress could amend or alter Section 230 to open the door for plaintiffs to sue a company like Google if they are able to prove a direct connection between a criminal act and the promotion of criminal behavior by the platform.

It was (apparently) obvious to the nine justices, to me, and to many other pundits, that no such connection existed in the cases the court just heard. But that doesn't mean that won't ever happen. And, as some pundits have convincingly argued, Section 230 may provide too much immunity to Big Tech, even if it does help preserve and foster a flourishing internet. This seems to be the view of some lawmakers, too.

But finding the line between “too much immunity” and “destroying the free internet” was never something the court should have chimed in on, and this nuance is something that should first be fleshed out by the legislature. If members of Congress believe Section 230 is a great danger to society, they should do their job and craft legislation to address it directly.

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Under the radar.

In little-noticed remarks at an award ceremony, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Supreme Court is continuing to take steps to address questions about the justices' ethical standards. “I want to assure people that I am committed to making certain that we as a court adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” he said. “We are continuing to look at things we can do to give practical effect to that commitment, and I am confident that there are ways to do that consistent with our status as an independent branch of government and the Constitution’s separation of powers.” Roberts previously turned down an invitation to testify before a Senate committee on allegations of impropriety at the court, citing the exceedingly rare nature of such testimony. His comments were reported by The New York Times' Adam Liptak, who covers the court.


  • Eight. The number of days until the U.S. government potentially defaults on its $31 trillion debt.
  • ~7,000. The approximate number of cases filed to the Supreme Court every year.
  • 100-150. The approximate number the court agrees to hear every year.
  • ~100%. From 2011 to 2021, the percentage increase of teenagers and young adults who have clinical depression, according to San Diego State University research.
  • 33 percentage points. Trump's lead over DeSantis in national polling, up from 16 points in March.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we published an update on Afghanistan.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was The Washington Post story on the hoax image of an explosion at the Pentagon.
  • Shock poll: Yesterday, we asked Tangle readers which Republican candidate they'd vote for if they had to pick one (this poll included Tangle's liberal readers, naturally). 51.4% said Tim Scott, 14.8% said Ron DeSantis, 20.84% said Nikki Haley, and 8% said Vivek Ramaswamy. Just 4.5% picked Donald Trump. Reminder: Just a few weeks ago, only 18% of Tangle readers said they'd support Joe Biden running again, making the two favored candidates extremely unpopular with our readership.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Scientists think a supernova star might be beginning to explode, which could create the astonishing image of it becoming about half as bright as a full moon. Unfortunately, it's 650 light years away, so you probably won't catch it.
  • Take the poll. Now I'm curious. Let's do some 2024 head-to-head polling. Tell us who you'd pick.

Have a nice day.

For a long time, other states have looked down on Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for their education scores. But that is changing. The Gulf South, after years of improving test scores for its kids, is now becoming a region to model rather than a region to mock. Mississippi has gone from 49th in reading scores for fourth graders in 2013 to 21st in 2022. Meanwhile, Louisiana and Alabama were the only states to see improvements during the pandemic. The turnaround is being credited in large part to literacy laws that emphasize phonics and early screenings for struggling kids. And educators nationally are taking notice, dubbing it the "Mississippi miracle." The Associated Press has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.