A lawyer suing Facebook for allowing itself to be used by jihadists and terrorists told a federal judge in Brooklyn on Wednesday that he had set up a fake account this week for notorious Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook, a U.S. government-designated terrorist, without interference from the social media giant.
“These people can go on Facebook and open an account without any effort to disguise their names and call it Hamas Headquarters,” said Robert Tolchin, whose lawsuits claim Facebook’s lax policies facilitate violence despite laws prohibiting services to designated terrorists. “There is simply no excuse.”
The two suits before U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis — one brought by Israelis, a second by five families of U.S. citizens killed or injured in overseas attacks linked to Hamas — seek both damages and an order that would force Facebook to do a better job screening terrorists and preventing terrorists from using Facebook to recruit, plan and create fear.
The company says it has “zero tolerance” for terrorism, and removes terrorist content when flagged by users, but Facebook lawyer Craig Primis told Garaufis on Wednesday that Congress has immunized internet platforms from liability for user content and the suits would represent an unprecedented intrusion.
“There are billions of messages posted on Facebook every day,” Primis said. “Some of them will offend. If we had to defend every one, we would have a very different internet. If you want to have a robust internet, those are protected editorial decisions.”
But Tolchin said the protections under the federal Communications Decency Act did not pre-empt criminal and civil anti-terrorism laws that prohibit institutions like banks from providing services to known terrorists, and performing that function diligently would not force Facebook to censor users.
“It has nothing to do with content,” he said.
Tolchin also objected to Facebook’s claim that his Israeli clients, who allege that they fear becoming victims because of the company’s behavior, haven’t suffered an actual injury that gives them standing to sue.
“Facebook’s position is that until my clients are killed or maimed they shouldn’t be allowed to come into court,” he said. “I frankly have a lot of problems with that statement.”
Garaufis reserved decision on Facebook’s motion to dismiss, but expressed doubt about Facebook’s ability to police millions of users — including designated terrorists like Abu Marzook, who could easily adopt pseudonyms to open accounts.
“This would not solve the problem,” he told Tolchin.
After the hearing, one of the plaintiffs — Micah Lakin Avni, an Israeli whose father Richard Lakin, 76, a one-time Connecticut school principal was killed in a 2015 attack in Jerusalem — said he believed Facebook effectively policed child pornography, and could do the same for terrorism if it wanted.
One of the men who killed his father in an attack on a bus, Avni said, had used his Facebook account to post a martyr’s will and express support for terrorism before the attack, and afterward Hamas used Facebook to publicize the attack.
“It’s all about money,” Avni said. “They have a vested interest in having as much traffic as possible.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified lawyer Robert Tolchin.