By Bill Pan
An upcoming decision in the U.S. Supreme Court case regarding online social media companies’ liability for content posted on their platforms could transform the internet for the worse, Google said in a court filing.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Gonzalez v. Google next month and answer important questions surrounding the scope of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally shields online platforms like Google and Facebook from liability for content published by their users. Congress passed the law in 1996, after a New York court held a web service provider liable for offensive messages posted to a bulletin board it hosted.
Should the high court decide to eliminate or cut back liability protections the Section 230 offers, it could “upend the internet” and “perversely encourage both wide-ranging suppression of speech and the proliferation of more offensive speech,” Google said in a brief (pdf) Thursday.
“This Court should decline to adopt novel and untested theories that risk transforming today’s internet into a forced choice between overly curated mainstream sites or fringe sites flooded with objectionable content,” the search giant argued.
The pending case was filed by Reynaldo Gonzalez, a California man whose daughter was among 130 victims of the deadly terror attacks in 2015 in Paris, France. The father sued Google under a federal counterterrorism law, accusing Google of assisting ISIS by hosting the terrorist group’s recruitment videos on YouTube.
Gonzalez also alleged that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms made it easier for ISIS videos to reach potential recruits, and therefore should be held liable for helping ISIS to grow and cause deaths.
In response, Google said in Thursday’s brief that YouTube “abhors terrorism” and has taken “increasingly effective actions to remove terrorist and other potentially harmful content” over the years.
All YouTube does, according to Google, is provide a website that “publishes third-party videos using algorithms to sort and list related videos that may interest viewers so that they do not confront a morass of billions of unsorted videos.”
Lower courts previously ruled in Google’s favor, saying that the company’s behavior fell well within the protection of Section 230. However, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has expressed an interest in further discussing the scope of the law’s application.
“Assuming Congress does not step in to clarify [Section 230’s] scope, we should do so in an appropriate case,” he wrote in March 2022 in an opinion.
Biden Calls to Remove Liability Shield
Google’s warning comes as the White House renews its call for bipartisan effort to remove Section 230.
In a Jan. 11 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, President Joe Biden argued that tech companies should be held responsible for using algorithms to direct users to “extreme and polarizing content that is likely to keep them logged on and clicking.”
“All too often, tragic violence has been linked to toxic online echo chambers,” Biden wrote. He also accused internet platforms of harboring “abusive and even criminal conduct, like cyberstalking, child sexual exploitation, nonconsensual pornography, and sales of dangerous drugs.”
The president then called for changes in three broad aspects: enacting “serious federal protections” for privacy,” forcing Big Tech companies to take responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use, and bringing more competition to the tech sector.
“I urge Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass strong bipartisan legislation to hold Big Tech accountable,” he wrote.