The Supreme Court is considering liability protection for internet giants

WASHINGTON (AP) — Islamic State gunmen killed American student Nohemi Gonzalez in 2015 while she was sitting with friends in a Parisian bistro, in one of several attacks on a Friday night in the French capital that left 130 dead.

Her family’s lawsuit, which alleges YouTube’s recommendations helped the group “Islamic State” recruit, is at the center of a closely watched case in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, which will debate how comprehensive a law is from 1996 protects technology 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 being heard on Wednesday involves a terrorist attack at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2017 that killed 39 people and sparked a lawsuit against Twitter, Facebook and Google, the YouTube owner.

The tech industry has come under criticism from the left for not doing enough to remove harmful content from the internet and from the right for censoring conservative speech. The Supreme Court is now ready to deal intensively with online legal protection for the first time.

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 finding jobs, restaurants, and goods could be restricted if those social media platforms feared because of the services they provide and from being sued for recommendations desired by their users.

“Section 230 underpins many aspects of the open internet,” said Neal Mohan, newly appointed senior vice president and head of YouTube.

The Gonzalez family, supported in part by the Biden administration, argues that the lower courts’ pro-industry interpretation of the law has made it too difficult to hold big tech companies to account. Freed from the prospect of being sued, companies would have no incentive to act responsibly, critics say.

READ :  Felix Desmarais: As Twitter dies, I found the nicest place on the internet

They are urging the court to say that companies can be sued in some cases.

Beatriz Gonzalez, Nohemi’s mother, said she rarely uses the internet but hopes the case will make it harder for extremist groups to access social media.

“I don’t know much about social media or these ISIS organizations. I know nothing about politics. But I know my daughter isn’t going to disappear just like that,” Gonzalez said in an interview with The Associated Press from her home in Roswell, New Mexico.

Their daughter was a 23-year-old senior at California State University, Long Beach, who spent a semester in Paris to study industrial design. Her last communication with her mother was a mundane exchange of money over Facebook two days before the attacks, Gonzalez said.

The legal wrangling has nothing to do with what happened in Paris. Instead, they turn to reading a law that was enacted “at the dawn of the dot-com era,” as Judge Clarence Thomas, a critic of broad legal immunity, wrote in 2020.

When the law passed, 5 million people were using AOL, then a leading online service provider, Tom Wheeler, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, recalled at a recent conference at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Facebook has 3 billion users today, Wheeler said.

The law was written in response to a state court ruling that could make an Internet company liable for a post posted by one of its users on an online forum. The basic purpose of the law was “to protect the ability of Internet platforms to publish and showcase user-generated content in real time and to encourage them to review and take down illegal or objectionable content,” according to author Sen. Ron Wyden. D-Ore. , and former Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., wrote in a Supreme Court filing.

READ :  A warning from Brazil; Russia loses billions from internet shutdowns

Groups supporting the Gonzalez family say companies haven’t done nearly enough to control child sexual abuse, revenge porn and terrorism content, particularly in curbing computer algorithms from recommending that content to users. They also say courts have interpreted the law too broadly.

“Congress, when passing Section 230, could never have predicted that the Internet would evolve the way it did and that it would be exploited by terrorists,” said Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official who wrote a short report on behalf of former national security officials.

According to Mohan, YouTube is capable of blocking people from watching almost anything that goes against the company’s rules, including violent, extremist content. Only 1 video in 1,000 makes it past the company’s screeners, he said.

Recommendations have emerged as the focus of the Supreme Court case. Google and its supporters argue that even a narrow rule for the family would have far-reaching implications.

“Recommendation algorithms make it possible to find the needles in mankind’s greatest haystack,” wrote Kent Walker and the other Google attorneys in their main letter to the Supreme Court.

“If we undo Section 230, it would break a lot of internet tools,” Walker said in an interview.

Some websites may remove a lot of legitimate content in a show of over-caution. Emerging forces and marginalized communities will most likely suffer from such a heavy hand, said Daphne Keller of the Stanford Cyber ​​Policy Center, who has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in support of Google.

The judges’ own views on the matter are largely unknown, with the exception of Thomas’s.

READ :  Parliamentary body pulls up DoT on internet shutdowns; asks that records be kept and their impact assessed

He suggested in 2020 that limiting corporate immunity would not destroy them.

“A reduction in the sweeping immunity courts read in Section 230 would not necessarily hold defendants liable for online wrongdoing. It would only give the plaintiffs the opportunity to assert their claims at all. Plaintiffs still have to prove the merits of their cases, and some claims will undoubtedly fail,” Thomas wrote.

The Gonzalez family alleges that YouTube supported and abetted ISIS by recommending the group’s videos to viewers most likely to be interested in them, in violation of federal counterterrorism law.

But nothing in the lawsuit connects the attackers who killed Gonzalez to videos on YouTube, and the lack of a connection could make it difficult to prove the company did anything wrong.

If the judges avoided the tough questions raised by the case, they could focus on Wednesday’s arguments related to the Istanbul attack. The only question is whether the lawsuit can proceed under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

A verdict for the companies in this case, in which the allegations are very similar to those of the Gonzalez family, would also end the trial over the Paris attacks.