How the Supreme Court could reshape online discourse
How the Supreme Court could reshape online discourse
The future of online speech is in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments in two high-profile cases involving Google, Twitter and Facebook that could reshape how people use the internet and what they can post online. Both cases arise from trial worn by relatives of people killed in terrorist attacks, alleging that social media companies are responsible for harmful content that appears on their platforms.
The issue is whether these online platforms should be held legally responsible for content created by their users but promoted by the companies’ algorithms. Tech companies have successfully fought back against these types of lawsuits because of the protections they receive under a 27-year-old federal law.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including US President Joe Bidenhave called for changes to what is called Section 230 due to growing concerns, technology companies are not doing enough to protect user safety. Tech companies say removing this legal shield could hurt free speech because they could face more lawsuits.
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said technology platforms give people the ability to talk to others online. This could disappear according to the decision of the Supreme Court.
“If the Supreme Court says it’s a risky option, then the Supreme Court isn’t sticking to big tech,” said Goldman, who wrote a brief supporting Section 230 protections. sticks to all of us.” Companies could limit who can post on their platforms or remove user-generated content, he added.
Here’s what you need to know about this high-stakes online speech battle:
What is Section 230?
Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects platforms including Google, Facebook, owned by Meta, Twitter and other services from certain lawsuits relating to user-created posts . It also allows these platforms to take action against offensive content.
The provision states that no provider of “interactive computer services” or its user shall be treated as a third-party content publisher.
The co-authors of Section 230 – US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, and former Representative Chris Cox, a Republican from California – told the Supreme Court in a brief that Congress had created “to protect the ability of Internet platforms to publish and present user-generated content in real time, and to encourage them to filter and remove illegal or offensive content.” Even back then, online services were doing subject to legal action for user content.In 1995, for example, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the Internet messaging platform Prodigy Services could be held liable for posting allegedly defamatory content.
Section 230 does not apply to content that violates criminal, intellectual property, state, communications privacy, and sex trafficking laws.
Why should I care?
Section 230 was designed to encourage freedom of expression online. But a Supreme Court ruling on the matter could change how you use the internet and what you can post online. If an online platform is worried about more lawsuits, it could change how it moderates content and potentially increase scrutiny of what you say.
“Without the protections of Section 230, many online intermediaries would intensively filter and censor user speech, while others might simply not host user content at all,” the Electronic Frontier said. Foundation in a blog post on the subject.
What cases are heard by the Supreme Court?
The Supreme Court is considering two cases regarding online speech: Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter c. Taamneh.
González c. Google, which will be heard on Tuesday, focuses on whether Section 230 protects online platforms, including social networks, from legal action when they recommend third-party content. The case stems from a lawsuit brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American student killed in 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The family alleged that Google-owned YouTube aided IS terrorists because the video-sharing platform allowed them to post videos inciting violence and recruiting supporters. The lawsuit also accuses YouTube of recommending ISIS videos to users.
A district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Google’s favor, denying Gonzalez’s claims.
In Twitter v. Taamneh on Wednesday, the Supreme Court is considering whether people can sue online platforms for aiding and abetting an act of terrorism. The case concerns the 2017 death of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian citizen who was shot and killed in an Istanbul nightclub in a mass shooting. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. People close to Alassaf sued Twitter, Google and Facebook, alleging the platforms were liable under anti-terrorism law for aiding and abetting terrorism because the companies failed to do enough to combat such harmful content.
A district court denied the claims in the lawsuit, but the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the decision.
How have tech companies reacted?
Google says the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 230 could “dramatically change the way Americans use the internet.”
“You would be forced to choose between overly organized mainstream sites or fringe sites inundated with objectionable content,” Google said in a post about the case.
If the platform could be sued for the content it recommends, consumers might have a harder time finding the content they want to see. The tech giant also says removing Section 230 protections would make the internet less secure, hurt online platforms large and small, and force websites to restrict more content or shut down certain services due to legal risks.
“Congress has made it clear that Section 230 protects the ability of online services to organize content,” Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google’s general counsel, said in a statement. “The erosion of these protections would fundamentally change the way the internet works, making it less open, less secure and less useful.
Other tech companies, including Reddit, Yelp, Microsoft and Meta, have also defended Section 230 protections in briefs filed in court.
“Exposing companies to liability for decisions to curate and filter content among the vast array of content posted online would encourage them to simply remove more content in ways Congress never intended,” said Jennifer Newstead, Meta’s Chief Legal Officer, in a blog post on the subject.
Reddit said in its submission that users may become more wary of volunteering to moderate content on its platform or recommending content through actions such as “upvoting” due to legal risks. .
In Twitter v. Taamneh, Twitter said it did not aid or abet an act of terrorism because the company did not intend to aid terrorists, had policies against posting terrorist content, and was not unrelated to the terrorist attack in Turkey. Facebook and YouTube, owned by Google, backed Twitter in a brief, saying the terrorism law appeals court ruling is “incorrect” and could lead to further lawsuits against any provider of goods or services such as an airline, a financial services provider. and the pharmaceutical industry that terrorists abuse.
Twitter, which no longer has a communications service, did not respond to a request for comment.
What do US lawmakers think?
Democrats and Republicans, surprisingly, agree that reforms to Section 230 are needed. But their motivations strongly contradict each other.
Republicans accuse Big Tech of suppressing conservative voices, with US House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan last week issue subpoenas to the CEOs of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft.
Democrats argue that Section 230 prevents social media companies from being held liable for failing to moderate hate speech, misinformation and other offensive content.
“We need big tech companies to take responsibility for the content they put out and the algorithms they use,” Biden wrote in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal in January.
What happens next?
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on those cases this year. The court is asked to consider other cases involving online speech. In January, he was slow to say whether he would hear cases about controversial laws passed in Texas and Florida that restrict how social media companies can moderate content.