Supreme Court to hear case that targets legal shield from tech giants

Supreme Court to hear case that targets legal shield from tech giants

Supreme Court to hear case that targets legal shield from tech giants

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Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student from California, was studying abroad in Paris in November 2015 when she was among 130 people killed in a coordinated series of terror attacks across the city.


The following year, her father sued Google and other tech companies. He accused the companies of delivering content that radicalized users into terrorists, and said they were therefore legally responsible for the harm inflicted on Ms Gonzalez’s family. His mother, stepfather and brothers also joined the lawsuit.

Their claims will be heard in the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday. And their lawsuit, with Google now the exclusive defendant, could have potentially seismic ramifications for the social media platforms that have become channels of communication, commerce and culture for billions of people.

Their lawsuit targets a federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, that protects online platforms like Google’s Facebook, Instagram and YouTube from lawsuits over content posted by their users or their decisions to remove content. The case gives Supreme Court justices the option of restricting how this legal shield is applied or stripping it altogether, potentially opening companies up to liability for what users post and to lawsuits for defamation, discriminatory advertising and extremist propaganda.

A day after hearing Gonzalez v. Google, court set to hear second tech lawsuit, Twitter v. Taamneh, on whether Twitter has contributed to terrorism.

What the Supreme Court ultimately decides on the cases will add to a pitched battle around the world over how to regulate online speech. Many governments say social media has become a breeding ground for hate speech and misinformation. Some demanded that the platforms delete these messages. But in the United States, the First Amendment prevents Congress from doing the same.

Critics of Section 230 say it allows tech companies to avoid liability for damage caused under their watch. But supporters counter that without the legal shield, companies will remove more content than ever to avoid lawsuits, stifling free speech.

The Supreme Court case “may have an impact on how these companies do business and how we interact with the internet,” said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California to Berkeley. He filed a brief with the Supreme Court supporting the Gonzalez family members suing Google.

Ms. Gonzalez, a first-generation student studying design at California State University, Long Beach, was killed while out with friends during the 2015 Paris attacks. Islamic State later claimed responsibility. responsibility. She was the only American killed.

Her father, Reynaldo Gonzalez, sued Google, Facebook and Twitter in 2016, arguing that the platforms were spreading extremist content. This included propaganda, messages from Islamic State leaders and videos of graphic violence, he said. Citing news reports, the lawsuit mentioned specific videos showing images of Islamic State fighters on the ground and updates from a media outlet affiliated with the group. Online platforms did not do enough to keep the terror group away from their sites, the lawsuit said.

YouTube and other platforms say they filter these videos and remove many of them. But in 2018, research based on a tool developed by Mr Farid found that some Islamic State videos remained on for hours, including one that encouraged violent attacks in Western countries.

Facebook and Twitter were dropped as defendants in the lawsuit in 2017, the same year Ms Gonzalez’s mother, stepfather and siblings joined the plaintiffs. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that Google did not have to face the claims of members of the Gonzalez family because the company was protected by Section 230.

In May, lawyers for Ms. Gonzalez’s family asked the Supreme Court to intervene. By using algorithms to recommend content to users, the lawyers argued, YouTube was essentially engaging in its own form of speech, which was not protected by Section 230.

Ms Gonzalez’s father and the plaintiffs in the Twitter case declined to comment through their attorney, Keith Altman. Mr Altman said the courts had “pushed the limits” of the Section 230 legal shield to the point that it was “unrecognizable”.An attorney for Ms. Gonzalez’s other family members did not respond to a request for comment. The lawyer who will argue the two cases before the Supreme Court, Eric Schnapper, also declined to comment.

Google denied the Gonzalez family’s arguments about Section 230. It said the family’s claims that Google supports terrorism are based on “tired claims” and “speculative” arguments.

In Congress, efforts to reform Section 230 have stalled. Republicans, spurred by accusations that internet companies are more likely to cut conservative posts, have proposed tweaking the law. Democrats said platforms should take down more content when they spread misinformation or hate speech.

Instead, the courts began to explore the limits of how the law should be applied.

In one case in 2021, a California federal appeals court ruled that Snap, Snapchat’s parent, couldn’t use Section 230 to dodge a lawsuit involving three people who died in a car crash after using a filter. Snapchat that displayed a user’s speed.

Last year, a California federal judge ruled that Apple, Google and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, could not use the legal shield to avoid certain claims from consumers who said they were harmed by casino apps. A federal judge in Oregon has also ruled the law doesn’t protect Omegle, the chat site that randomly logs users, from a lawsuit that claims an 11-year-old girl met a predator through its service. .

Tech companies say it will be devastating if the Supreme Court undermines Section 230. Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google’s general counsel, said in a December interview that the protections had been “crucial in allowing not only Google but the Internet from thriving in its infancy, to actually becoming an important part of the wider US economy.

“It’s extremely important that he be as he is,” she said.

A spokesperson for Meta pointed to a blog post where the company’s top lawyer said the case “could make it much harder for millions of online companies like Meta to provide the kind of services people love. daily use”.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Activists have raised concerns that changes to the law could cause platforms to crack down on content posted by vulnerable people. In 2018, a new law ended Section 230 protections when platforms knowingly facilitated sex trafficking. Activists say this has prompted sites to remove content from adult sex workers and posts about LGBTQ people.

The Gonzalez case has also attracted the interest of the Department of Justice. In a December brief, the agency told the Supreme Court that it believed Section 230 “does not bar claims based on YouTube’s purported targeted recommendations of ISIS content.” The White House has said the legal shield should be removed.

Mr. Farid acknowledged that it was possible for the court to override Section 230 protections, leading to unintended consequences. But he noted that social networks already abide by laws governing how they handle certain types of content, such as Germany’s restrictions on digital hate speech. He said they could also manage narrow changes to the legal shield.

“Companies get it,” he said.


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