Supreme Court Weighs Liability Shield for Internet Giants

Supreme Court Weighs Liability Shield for Internet Giants

WASHINGTON (AP) — Islamic State gunmen killed American college student Nohemi Gonzalez as she sat with friends at a Paris bistro in 2015, one of several Friday night attacks in the city. French capital which left 130 dead.

His family’s lawsuit claiming YouTube endorsements helped recruit the Islamic State group is at the center of a closely watched Supreme Court case being debated on Tuesday over the extent to which a law drafted in 1996 protects tech companies from any liability. The law, said Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is credited with helping to create today’s Internet.

A related case, to be debated on Wednesday, involves a 2017 nightclub terror attack in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed 39 people and prompted a lawsuit against Twitter, Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube.

The tech industry is being criticized by the left for not doing enough to remove harmful content from the internet and by the right for censoring conservative speech. Now the High Court is set to consider online legal protections for the first time.

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 companies warning that searches for jobs, restaurants and merchandise could be restricted if these social media platforms were to worry about being sued for recommendations that they provide and that their users want.

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

Gonzalez’s family, partially backed by the Biden administration, argues that lower courts’ pro-industry interpretation of the law has made it too difficult for Big Tech companies to be held accountable. Freed from the prospect of being sued, companies have no incentive to act responsibly, critics say.

They urge the court to say that companies can be sued in some cases.

Beatriz Gonzalez, Nohemi’s mother, said she barely uses the internet but hopes the case will make it harder for extremist groups to gain access to social media.

“I don’t know much about social media or these ISIS organizations. I don’t know anything about politics. But what I do know is my daughter isn’t going to just disappear like this,” Gonzalez said in a statement. interview with The Associated. Press from her home in Roswell, New Mexico.

Her daughter was a 23-year-old California State University, Long Beach, who was spending a semester in Paris studying industrial design. His last communication with his mother was a mundane exchange of money via Facebook two days before the attacks, Gonzalez said.

The legal arguments have nothing to do with what happened in Paris. Instead, they rely on reading a law that was enacted “at the dawn of the dot-com era,” as immunity critic Judge Clarence Thomas wrote. legal extension, in 2020.

When the law was passed, 5 million people were using AOL, then a leading online service provider, Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, recalled at a recent Kennedy conference. Harvard School of Government. Facebook now has 3 billion users, Wheeler said.

The law was drafted in response to a state court ruling that an Internet company could be held liable for a posting by one of its users in an online forum. The fundamental purpose of the law was “to protect the ability of Internet platforms to publish and present user-generated content in real time, and to encourage them to filter and remove illegal or offensive content”, its authors, the Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. , and former Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., wrote in a Supreme Court filing.

Groups supporting the Gonzalez family say the companies have not done enough to police content in the areas of child sexual abuse, revenge pornography, and terrorism, particularly to curb the recommendation of such content by people. computer algorithms to users. They also say the courts have interpreted the law too broadly.

“Congress could never have foreseen, when it passed Section 230, that the Internet would grow the way it did and that it would be used by terrorists the way it did,” said Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official who wrote a memoir on behalf of former national security officials.

Mohan said YouTube is able to block people from seeing almost anything that violates the company’s rules, including violent and extremist content. Only 1 in 1,000 videos play in front of corporate screens, he said.

The recommendations emerged at the center of the Supreme Court case. Google and its supporters argue that even a narrow decision for the family would have far-reaching effects.

“Recommendation algorithms are what find the needles in humanity’s largest haystack,” Kent Walker and the other Google lawyers wrote in their lead brief to the Supreme Court.

“If we undo section 230, it would break a lot of internet tools,” Walker said in an interview.

Some sites may remove a lot of legitimate content out of an abundance of caution. Emerging forces and marginalized communities are most likely to suffer from such a heavy hand, said Daphne Keller of the Stanford Cyber ​​Policy Center, who has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in supporting Google.

The judges’ opinions on the matter are largely unknown, with the exception of Thomas.

He suggested in 2020 that limiting corporate immunity would not devastate them.

“The sweeping reduction in immunity that the courts have read into section 230 would not necessarily make defendants liable for wrongdoing online. It would simply give plaintiffs a chance to assert their rights in the first place. Plaintiffs have yet to prove their case, and some claims will undoubtedly fail,” Thomas wrote.

The Gonzalez family alleges that YouTube aided and abetted ISIS by recommending the group’s videos to viewers most likely to be interested in them, in violation of federal anti-terrorism law.

But nothing in the lawsuit links the attackers who killed Gonzalez to videos on YouTube, and the lack of a connection could make it difficult to prove the company did anything wrong.

If the judges avoided the tough questions posed by the case, they could focus on Wednesday’s arguments regarding the Istanbul bombing. The only question is whether the prosecution can proceed under the Anti-terrorism Act.

A decision for the companies in this case, where the allegations are very similar to those of the Gonzalez family, would also end the trial relating to the Paris attacks.

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