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Supreme Court will hear case on internet liability: What does it mean?

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  • Staff Report 

The family of American college student Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in 2015 in a Paris bistro by Islamic State gunmen, is at the center of a closely watched Supreme Court case being argued Tuesday about how broadly a law written in 1996 shields tech companies from liability. The lawsuit claims that YouTube’s recommendations helped the Islamic State group’s recruitment. A related case, set for arguments Wednesday, involves a terrorist attack in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2017 that killed 39 people and prompted a suit against Twitter, Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube.

The law in question, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is credited with helping create today’s internet. The tech industry is facing criticism from the left for not doing enough to remove harmful content from the internet and from the right for censoring conservative speech. Now, the high court is poised to take its first hard look at online legal protections.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

A win for Gonzalez’s family could wreak havoc on the internet, say Google and its many allies. Yelp, Reddit, Microsoft, Craigslist, Twitter, and Facebook are among the companies warning that searches for jobs, restaurants, and merchandise could be restricted if those social media platforms had to worry about being sued over the recommendations they provide and their users want.

“Section 230 underpins a lot of aspects of the open internet,” said Neal Mohan, who was just named senior vice president and head of YouTube.

According to Gonzalez’s family, lower courts’ industry-friendly interpretation of the law has made it too difficult to hold Big Tech companies accountable. Freed from the prospect of being sued, companies have no incentive to act responsibly, critics say. They are urging the court to say that companies can be sued in some instances.

Groups supporting the Gonzalez family say companies have not done nearly enough to control content in the areas of child sexual abuse, revenge porn, and terrorism, especially in curbing computer algorithms’ recommendation of that content to users. They also say that courts have read the law too broadly.

“If we undo Section 230, that would break a lot of the internet tools,” said Kent Walker, one of Google’s lawyers, in an interview.

The justices’ own views on the issue are largely unknown, except for Justice Clarence Thomas, a critic of broad legal immunity. He suggested in 2020 that limiting the companies’ immunity would not devastate them.

“Paring back the sweeping immunity courts have read into Section 230 would not necessarily render defendants liable for online misconduct. It simply would give plaintiffs a chance to raise their claims in the first place. Plaintiffs still must prove the merits of their cases, and some claims will undoubtedly fail,” Thomas wrote.

The Gonzalez family alleges that YouTube aided and abetted IS by recommending the group’s videos to viewers most likely to be interested in them, in violation of the federal Anti-Terrorism Act. But nothing in the suit links the attackers who killed Gonzalez to videos on YouTube, and the lack of a connection could make it hard to prove the company did anything wrong.

The case has nothing to do with what happened in Paris. Instead, it turns on the reading of a law that was enacted “at the dawn of the dot-com era,” as Thomas wrote.