The US Supreme Court doesn’t understand the internet

There was laughter in the US Supreme Court on February 21 when Judge Elena Kagan said, “We are one court – we really don’t know anything about these things. We’re not like the nine greatest experts on the internet.”

On February 21, the nine judges heard oral arguments in the Gonzalez v. Google case, a case brought by Reynaldo Gonzalez, whose daughter was killed in a 2015 ISIS terrorist attack in Paris, and which alleges that YouTube’s algorithm powered the attack Referrals supported the group’s recruitment videos to those most receptive to their message. The outcome of the case could decide the future of social media platforms worldwide.

At the heart of the case is whether tech companies should be held liable for harmful content posted by their users on their platforms – something for which they are currently protected by Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act, a 1996 statute whose primary purpose was to increase competition in the broadcasting and telecommunications markets. It’s a safeguard that has saved companies whose platforms have enormous reach and influence from being held accountable for harm caused by extremist content and disinformation. But it’s also a fundamental underpinning of free speech online.

See more

“The purpose of Section 230 was to prevent platforms from becoming football tossed around when people disagree about what constitutes appropriate free speech online,” said Andrew Sullivan, President and CEO of the Internet Society , which filed an amicus brief in support of Section 230. “When you start messing with this, you’re fundamentally messing with the design of the Internet. And that will lead to network fragmentation.”

READ :  District Resolution Would Help Yakima ISP Receive Funds To Expand Internet Infrastructure | business

Debates about Section 230 have been largely confined to the circuit courts—lower tiers of the US federal court system—for nearly two decades. That changed after the 2016 presidential election, when Republican lawmakers began to address and reinforce often false claims that platforms were censoring conservative users. That message has proven effective in mobilizing elements of their base, and Republican figures continue to accuse big tech companies like Meta and Twitter of bias.

A prominent example of this supposedly “biased” enforcement is Facebook’s 2018 decision to ban Alex Jones, the host of the right-wing Infowars website, who was later slapped with $1.5 billion in damages after he killed the families who molested victims of a mass shooting.

Many of the actions that infuriated Republicans were shielded by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. These protections are essentially unassailable by law, so the legislature targeted Section 230 instead.

Beginning in 2018, prominent Conservatives were calling for legislative changes that would make Section 230’s liability protections explicitly conditional on how corporations treat political speech. High-profile Republicans, including Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, frequently misconstrued the section’s language. “The predicate of Section 230 immunity … is that you are a neutral public forum,” Cruz said in 2018, interpreting the law as only shielding websites that treat left-wing and right-wing political views equally.

Recent laws in both Texas and Florida have attempted to place more restrictions on how platforms can and cannot monitor content.

Gonzalez v. Google takes a different tack, focusing on platforms’ failure to deal with extremist content. Social media platforms have been accused of promoting hate speech and incitement to violence, which has led to real damage, from a genocide in Myanmar to assassinations in Ethiopia to an attempted coup in Brazil.

READ :  Clip of Collie Reacting to His Favorite Words Has Internet in Hysterics

“The content in question is obviously horrific and offensive,” said GS Hans, associate law professor at Cornell University in New York. “But that’s part of what online language is. And I fear that the nature of the extremes of the content will lead to some conclusions or religious implications that I don’t think really reflect the larger dynamics of the internet.”

The Internet Society’s Sullivan says the arguments surrounding Section 230 big tech companies – which as private companies can decide what content is allowed on their platforms – are merging with the internet as a whole.

“People have forgotten how the Internet works,” says Sullivan. “Because we’ve had an economic reality that has caused certain platforms to become overwhelming successes, we’ve started to confuse social issues as having to do with the overwhelming dominance of a single player, or a small handful of players with problems Internet.”

Sullivan worries that the only companies that could survive such regulations would be larger platforms, further calcifying the impact big tech platforms already have.

The decisions taken in the US to regulate the Internet are also likely to resonate around the world. Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Internet Freedom Foundation in India, says a Section 230 ruling could set a precedent for other countries.

“It’s less about the specifics of the case,” says Waghre. “It’s more about that [how] Once there is prescriptive regulation or precedent from the United States, other countries, especially the authoritarian ones, will use it to justify their own interventions.”

The Indian government is already taking steps to gain more control over content within the country, including the establishment of a government-appointed content moderation committee and stronger enforcement of the country’s IT regulations.

READ :  Cat's Failed Attempt at Clawing Christmas Tree Has Internet Howling

Waghre suspects that if platforms need to implement policies and tools to comply with a modified or completely eliminated Section 230, they will likely apply those methods and standards to other markets as well. In many countries around the world, major platforms, notably Facebook, are so ubiquitous that they essentially act as the internet for millions of people.

“Once you start doing something in one country, it’s used as a precedent or argument for doing the same thing in another country,” he says.