The US Supreme Court on Tuesday will begin hearing oral arguments in a pair of cases that could fundamentally alter the internet’s future by changing the legal protection given to online platforms such as Google and Twitter for content published on their sites.
The two cases mark the first time the high court will directly weigh in on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from legal liability over content posted by their users and is widely seen as central to the development of online communications.
Both cases stem from fatal terrorist attacks. In the case before the court on Tuesday, Gonzalez vs Google, the relatives of a 23-year-old American student killed in a 2015 Isis attack in Paris accuse Google of breaking US anti-terrorist laws by helping the terror group spread its message by hosting Isis videos and recommending related content to users via algorithms that rely on inputs such as viewing history. They argued Section 230 was enacted before the rise of algorithms, which have fundamentally changed how content is recommended and consumed online.
The tech giant argued there is no connection between its recommended videos and alleged violations of the Anti-Terrorism Act. It also warned that losing immunity under Section 230 would have significant knock-on effects given the widespread use of algorithms to sort content online.
The second case, Twitter vs Taamneh, arises from a deadly Isis attack at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2017. The relatives of one victim sued, alleging Twitter, Facebook and Google knowingly assisted the terrorist organisation by failing to stop its supporters from using their sites to disseminate their content. The court will hear arguments in that case on Wednesday.
Section 230 has become a flashpoint for Big Tech critics who argue it has allowed platforms to skirt responsibility for the spread of damaging material and impede freedom of speech by sidelining certain users.
A brief filed by the US Department of Justice warned against an “overly broad reading of Section 230”, which it said “would undermine the enforcement of other important federal statutes by both private plaintiffs and federal agencies”. Children’s wellbeing featured in briefs filed against Google’s position, with Child USA, a rights group, arguing the immunity granted by Section 230 has jeopardised children’s protection online amid a boom in internet content.
A string of tech companies including Microsoft, Meta and Reddit have filed briefs defending Google’s position. Facebook parent Meta argued that algorithms are a “critical component” of its anti-terrorism policies and that a broad Supreme Court decision “would encourage websites to remove all but the most benign views, turning a marketplace of diverse perspectives into a platform for orthodox perspectives”.
Predicting how Supreme Court justices might rule in these two cases is difficult given the complexity of the Section 230 debate, and most of the bench has not yet expressed views on the matter. However, one conservative justice, Clarence Thomas, has cited Section 230 in a previous ruling, saying Congress had given online platforms immunity while “not impos[ing] corresponding responsibilities”.