The Denver Post

Justices to hear case that targets tech’s legal shield

- By Davidmccab­e

Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old California college student, was studying abroad in Paris in November 2015 when she was among the 130 people killed in a coordinate­d series of terrorist attacks throughout the city.

The next year, her father sued Google and other tech companies. He accused the firms of spreading content that radicalize­d users into becoming terrorists, and said they were therefore legally responsibl­e for the harm inflicted on Gonzalez’s family. Her mother, stepfather and brothers eventually joined the lawsuit, too.

Their claims will be heard in the U. S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. And their lawsuit, with Google now the exclusive defendant, could have potentiall­y seismic ramificati­ons for the social media platforms that have become conduits of communicat­ion, commerce and culture for billions of people.

Their suit takes aim at a federal law, Section 230 of the Communicat­ions Decency Act, which shields online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Google’s Youtube fromlawsui­ts over content posted by their users or their decisions to take content down. The case gives the Supreme Court’s justices the opportunit­y to narrow how that legal shield is applied or to gut it entirely, potentiall­y opening up the companies to liability for what users post and to lawsuits over libel, discrimina­tory advertisin­g and extremist propaganda.

A day after hearing the Gonzalez v. Google case, the court is scheduled to hear a second tech lawsuit, Twitter v. Taamneh, over whether Twitter has contribute­d to terrorism.

What the Supreme Court ultimately decides on the cases will add to a pitched battle around the world over how to regulate online speech. Many government­s say that social networks have become fertile ground for hate speech and misinforma­tion. Some have required the platforms to take down those posts. But in the United States, the First Amendment makes it difficult for Congress to do the same.

Critics of Section 230 say that it lets the tech companies avoid responsibi­lity for harms facilitate­d on their watch. But supporters counter that without the legal shield, the companies will take down more content than ever to avoid lawsuits, stifling free expression.

The Supreme Court case “can have an impact on how those companies do business and how we interact with the internet, too,” said Hany Farid, a professor at the school of informatio­n at the University of California, Berkeley. He filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Gonzalez family members who are suing Google.

Gonzalez, a first- generation college student who was studying design at California State University, Long Beach, was killed while out with friends during the Paris attacks in 2015. The Islamic State group later claimed responsibi­lity. She was the only American killed.

Her father, Reynaldo Gonzalez, sued Google, Facebook and Twitter in 2016, arguing the platforms were spreading extremist content. That included propaganda, messages fromthe Islamic State group’s leaders and videos of graphic violence, he said. Citing media reports, the lawsuit mentioned specific videos that showed footage of Islamic State group fighters in the field and updates from a media outlet affiliated with the group. The online platforms didn’t do enough to keep the terrorist group off their sites, the lawsuit said.

Youtube and other platforms say they screen for such videos and take down many of them. But in 2018, research that was based on a tool developed by Farid found that some Islamic State group videos stayed up for hours, including one that encouraged violent attacks in Western nations.

Facebook and Twitter were removed as defendants in the lawsuit in 2017, the same year Gonzalez’smother, stepfather and siblings joined plaintiffs. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that Google did not have to face the Gonzalez family members’ claims because the company was protected by Section 230.

In May, lawyers for Gonzalez’s family asked the Supreme Court to step in. By using algorithms to recommend content to users, the lawyers argued, Youtube was essentiall­y engaging in its own form of speech, which was not protected by Section 230.

Gonzalez’s father and the plaintiffs in the Twitter case declined to comment through their lawyer, Keith Altman. Altman said that courts had “pushed the limits” of the Section 230 legal shield to the point that it was “unrecogniz­able.” A lawyer for Gonzalez’s other family members did not respond to a request for comment. The lawyer who will argue both cases before the Supreme Court, Eric Schnapper, also declined to comment.

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