Las Vegas Review-Journal
Supreme Court weighs liability shield for tech
Suit: Internet giants help extremists recruit
WASHINGTON — Islamic State gunmen killed American college student Nohemi Gonzalez as she sat with friends in a Paris bistro in 2015, one of several attacks on a Friday night in the French capital that left 130 people dead.
Her family’s lawsuit claiming Youtube’s recommendations helped the Islamic State group’s recruitment 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 law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is credited with helping create today’s internet.
A related case, set for arguments Wednesday, involves a terrorist attack at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2017 that killed 39 people and prompted a suit against Twitter, Facebook and Google, which owns Youtube.
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.
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.
“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.
Gonzalez’s family, partially backed by the Biden administration, argues that 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.
The legal arguments have nothing to do with what happened in Paris. Instead, they turn on the reading of a law that was enacted “at the dawn of the dot-com era,” as Justice Clarence Thomas, a critic of broad legal immunity, wrote in 2020.
When the law was passed, 5 million people used AOL, then a leading online service provider. Facebook has 3 billion users today.
The law was drafted in response to a state court decision that held an internet company could be liable for a post by one of its users in an online forum.
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.