On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear a case that challenges Big Tech companies’ broad protections against lawsuits regarding the content they host, as a result of a policy known as Section 230.
Politico reports that the case will mark the first time that the nation’s highest court will hear any challenge to Big Tech’s immunity under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which forbids legal action against such platforms over third-party content that is hosted on their sites. The case, Gonzalez vs. Google LLC, will see the court determine if these protections go too far when it comes to such content as terrorist videos being allowed on YouTube, the video-sharing platform that is owned by Google.
The case could see a decision from the court ultimately determining that such platforms are no longer allowed to use algorithms to recommend certain content to users, which would greatly threaten the finances of platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter that rely on such algorithms to generate advertising revenue and increase user engagement.
In the case, the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, which were carried out by ISIS, sued Google over YouTube’s hosting of ISIS content, arguing that doing so amounted to assisting the terrorist group’s recruitment efforts. As such, the court will consider the question of whether Section 230 still grants immunity for recommendations that are made by the algorithms, or if said protections only apply to actual editorial changes by the website.
“The answers this term may very well dictate whether or not we recognize the internet in the future,” said Eric Goldman, law professor at Santa Clara Law School. However, he claimed that the court’s choice between algorithm-generated content and manually-edited content is an “incoherent” dichotomy.
“I think it’s a false dichotomy,” Goldman continued. “I think that anything that’s considered to be algorithmic recommendations is and always has been part of traditional editorial function, there is no distinction. I think that Section 230 applies to them equally.”
The Gonzalez family had previously taken their case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately sided against the family and agreed with a lower court ruling determining that Section 230 still protected YouTube and Google from any liability in the case.
The case comes before the Supreme Court after Justice Clarence Thomas, the most senior member of the Supreme Court, had mentioned in previous dissents that it is time for the high court to finally consider Section 230; Thomas has argued that Big Tech companies should be treated as common carriers, like telephone providers, and thus should be forbidden from banning anyone from using their services.