The Supreme Court will hold oral arguments next month Gonzalez vs Google and Twitter vs Taamneh, two cases weighing the limits of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which shields big tech companies and other online platforms from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user contributions.
In gonzalesthe case has the potential to reverse decades of how the legal rules of the internet have worked. Judges on February 21 will consider the scope of Section 230 and whether its protections stand when an online platform targets specific content based on a user’s past activities on the platform.
The lawsuit focuses on the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old woman from the United States who was killed in the 2015 Islamic State attack in Paris. The family argues that Google’s parent company Alphabet should be held liable for the terrorist group using YouTube to carry out its attacks.
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Judges will also hear arguments on February 22 Taamneh, a similar case focusing on an ISIS attack in Istanbul. The case aims to answer whether Big Tech companies can be held liable outside of Section 230 for allowing terrorist groups to use their platforms.
in the Taamneh In the dispute, lower courts ruled the case should go ahead but declined to answer questions such as: B. whether Twitter has been immunized under Section 230, opting instead to analyze the scope of online platforms’ responsibilities under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
If the Supreme Court decides to roll back Section 230 protections long maintained by lower courts, it could allow for a spate of lawsuits against companies that use complex algorithms that govern the way content is displayed to online users , and could further force them to be more transparent about their systems.
Last month, the Justice Department warned the Supreme Court against interpreting Section 230 “too broadly”.
Meanwhile, Google has pushed back the Gonzalez petition. “This court should not lightly adopt a reading of Section 230 that would jeopardize the fundamental organizational choices of the modern Internet,” the company said in its brief.
Not much is known about how the nine judges feel about such issues related to the 1996 law, originally passed to prevent minors from accessing pornographic content on the Internet.
Daniel Lyons, Associate Law Associate at Boston College, wrote in October that at least “three conservative judges have suggested that lower courts may interpret Section 230 more broadly than the text allows.”
One of those judges, Clarence Thomas, wrote about Section 230 in 2020, saying, “In an appropriate case, we should consider whether the text of this increasingly important piece of legislation is consistent with the current state of internet platform immunity.”
The cases coincide with efforts by Congress to reform Section 230 to create accountability for online platforms that support the dissemination of terrorist content online. Democrats have argued that it spreads misinformation online by protecting tech companies from allowing such third-party content, while Republicans said the law allows tech companies to censor content online with an anti-conservative bias.
In both cases, if the Supreme Court ruled to continue protecting big tech companies from liability for how they promote and augment content, it could also usher in a new set of legislation to open platforms to such claims. Last month, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Ken Buck (R-CO) introduced one of the first bipartisan proposals to open platforms to liability for promoting content that leads to harm.
“This legislation will fix the misinterpretation of Section 230 immunity and ensure Big Tech can no longer benefit from promoting terrorist content on their platforms,” Buck said in a statement.
The Supreme Court’s Big Tech file could grow beyond the two big cases already scheduled for back-to-back hearings in February.
It is possible that judges also decide to hear Moody vs NetChoice, a pending case challenging the constitutionality of a Florida law that prohibits social media companies from banning politicians’ accounts. The law also requires companies to make it clear when and how they will censor certain statements.
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Tech trade groups with large members, including Amazon and Twitter, argue that the Florida law violates private companies’ First Amendment right to have editorial discretion over which speech to distribute.
A case pending in court and similar to this Moody is NetChoice vs Paxton, a challenge to a Texas social media law with similar measures to the Florida law.