The US Supreme Court has torn up challenges to internet companies’ legal protections
By Andrew Chung and John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed uncertainty over whether to limit legal protections protecting internet companies from a slew of lawsuits in a major case involving YouTube and the family of an American Students are involved, who was fatally shot by Islamist fighters in Paris in a rampage in 2015.
The judges heard arguments in an appeal by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student at California State University in Long Beach studying in France, against a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought against Google LLC by YouTube. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet Inc.
This is the first time the Supreme Court is examining the scope of a much-discussed 1996 federal law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields Internet companies from liability for content posted by their users. The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Circuit relied on Section 230 to dismiss the lawsuit.
The judges expressed concern about the possible consequences of reducing immunity for Internet companies and the difficulty of knowing where to draw the line, and expressed skepticism that these companies should be protected from certain types of harmful or defamatory content.
“These aren’t the nine greatest experts on the internet,” Liberal judge Elena Kagan said of the court members, causing laughter in the courtroom.
Kagan and fellow Conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh both suggested that Congress might be better placed to adjust legal protections for Internet companies if warranted.
The lawsuit accused Google of “materially supporting” terrorism and alleged that YouTube, through the video-sharing platform’s computer algorithms, unlawfully recommended videos made by the militant group “Islamic State,” which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed users. The recommendations helped spread the Islamic State’s message and recruit jihadist fighters, the lawsuit says.
Kagan told a Gonzalez family attorney, Eric Schnapper, that algorithms are widely used to organize and prioritize material on the internet, and asked, “Does your position throw us out on the street so that (Section) 230 really can’t mean anything at all?” “
Schnapper said no, adding: “As you say, algorithms are everywhere. But the question is, ‘What is the defendant doing with the algorithm?’”
The lawsuit was filed under the US Anti-Terrorism Act, a federal law that allows Americans to seek damages related to “an act of international terrorism.”
Google and its supporters have said a win for the plaintiffs could trigger a spate of lawsuits against platforms and upend the way the internet works. The case is a threat to freedom of expression, they added, because it could force platforms to suppress anything that could be seen as remotely controversial.
The judges wondered whether YouTube should lose immunity if the algorithms that provide recommendations are “neutral” or used to organize content based on users’ interests.
“I’m trying to get you to explain to us how something that’s on YouTube for pretty much anything you’re interested in suddenly boils down to ‘helping and abetting’ because you’re in the ISIS category,” Justice Clarence said Thomas Schnapper, with initials for the Islamic State group.
Judge Samuel Alito asked Lisa Blatt, Google’s attorney, “Would Google collapse and the internet be destroyed if YouTube, and by extension Google, were potentially responsible for hosting videos and refusing to remove videos it knows to be.” they are slanderous and false?”
Blatt replied, “Well, I don’t think Google would do that. I think probably any other website could do it because it’s not as big as Google.”
The judges wrestled with where to draw the line on Section 230’s potentially undermining protections.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether Section 230 should apply since recommendations are provided by YouTube itself.
“The videos don’t just appear out of nowhere, they appear according to the algorithms,” Roberts said.
Kagan wondered about a website that delivers defamatory content to millions of its users.
“Why should there be a protection for that?” Kagan asked.
Section 230 protects “interactive computer services” by ensuring that they cannot be treated as “publishers or speakers” of information provided by users.
Critics have said Section 230 too often prevents platforms from being held accountable for real-world harm. Liberals have complained about misinformation and hate speech on social media, while conservatives said voices on the right are being censored.
President Joe Biden’s administration asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the lawsuit brought by Nohemi Gonzalez’s family.
A verdict should be available by the end of June.
Judges will hear arguments in a related case on Wednesday over whether Twitter Inc. can be held liable under the Counter-Terrorism Act for aiding and abetting an “act of international terrorism” for allegedly not adequately alerting its platform to the presence of militants checked groups.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)