- The potential rearrangement of the modern internet is at stake as the Supreme Court reviews a brief yet powerful law this week.
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is central to recent controversy as it protects internet companies from liability for the user-generated content they host.
On 21st Feb, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google. The case, brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a victim of the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris, claims that Google should be held accountable for terrorist content promoted on YouTube before the attack.
On 22nd Feb, the court will hear a similar case that blames Twitter for another deadly terrorist attack.
The cases brought by the families of victims of ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris and Istanbul argue that Google and Twitter should be held responsible for terrorist content promoted on their platforms that preceded the attacks. The plaintiffs claim that these tech companies should face legal liability for the content they hosted or promoted that contributed to more than 150 deaths.
Supreme Court Reviews Section 230 Liability Shield
During Tuesday’s oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google, the justices questioned whether YouTube’s recommendation algorithm constitutes a different type of activity than simply hosting content. The plaintiffs argued that the recommendation function, which serves users’ content based on their viewing history, should not be protected by Section 230.
Although the idea of exceptions to Section 230 isn’t new, it is controversial. In 2018, a carve-out known as FOSTA was created to reduce sex trafficking, but it has been criticized for making sex work more dangerous. The Supreme Court isn’t the only government entity evaluating Section 230; efforts to dismantle or alter it have largely stalled in Congress in recent years.
During the oral arguments, the justices doubted whether the Supreme Court was appropriate for evaluating internet law. Some justices also expressed concern about the potential wide-reaching effects of altering Section 230, particularly regarding the potential for defamation and discrimination suits.
Some justices explored hypothetical extremes, such as allowing platforms to deliberately promote illegal content or not allowing them to make algorithmic recommendations.
Ultimately, the justices were not eager to shake up the status quo, and their reservations were nearly universal. Wednesday’s oral arguments in the parallel case against Twitter will be streamed live.