The Supreme Court last month seemed reluctant to limit legal protections for internet companies so families of victims of terrorist attacks can sue social media sites they believe have some responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones. The judges’ caution is warranted.
Congress should decide whether there should be changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, not the court. This 1996 law protects interactive sites like YouTube and Twitter from lawsuits based on content posted by third parties on those sites, while making it clear that such platforms can bar objectionable material, including content that is “excessively violent”. .
Last month, judges heard oral arguments in a case brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in Paris in 2015 when Islamic State terrorists fired on a restaurant where she was dining with friends. A family lawyer argued that Google, YouTube’s parent company, should be sued under an anti-terrorism law because the site’s algorithms make recommendations for pro-terrorism videos — for example, by showing thumbnails of similar videos.
Section 230, a provision that figures prominently in many—sometimes misinformed—arguments about government regulation of the Internet serves an important purpose. By protecting websites from lawsuits based on content posted by third parties – while banning websites from dangerous content – the law has fueled the growth of companies that rely on user-generated content for the general benefit of consumers.
Section 230 was also good for public service journalism. A Friends of the Court brief, filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, notes that the law “protects the free exchange of ideas and information on the online platforms that journalists rely on to identify sources, investigate stories and provide accurate reporting on events of public interest and personally engage with their audiences.”
This does not mean that Section 230 is sacrosanct and cannot be revisited more than two decades after its passage. In fact, it’s a good idea considering how much the internet has evolved over the past 27 years. But last month’s reasoning has shown that the task of refining the law is best left to the branch of government that created it. We agree, as dysfunctional and partisan as the current Congress is, it is still the appropriate place to update internet regulation. As Justice Elena Kagan put it, Supreme Court justices are not “the nine greatest experts on the internet.”
When it comes to Section 230 immunity, the court should let Congress decide what changes, if any, to make.
* Guest editor excerpt from the Los Angeles Times.
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