Will the Supreme Court undo the ‘rule that made the modern internet’?
The U.S. Supreme Court hears two cases this week, both related to terrorist acts, that will look closely at protections that have underpinned the evolution of the internet
Could a cornerstone protection of web-based companies, one that’s widely recognized as the tenet which led to the modern-day internet, get thrown out in court?
Two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court this week represent the first opportunity for the country’s highest legal authority to assess just how far a single line from the 1996 Communications Decency Act goes when it comes to protecting websites from the conduct of their own users.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act reads:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In its simplest interpretation, the section places the liability for any posting squarely on the user/poster and creates a legal firewall between that user and the website or platform operator, as well as other users. But, the protection is not absolute as the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, in that it does not protect companies that violate federal criminal law, create illegal or harmful content or illegally repurpose someone else’s intellectual property.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gonzalez vs. Google, a case stemming from the death of American college student Nohemi Gonzalez in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. According to The Associated Press, members of her family were in the courtroom to listen to arguments about whether they can sue Google-owned YouTube for helping the Islamic State spread its message and attract new recruits, in violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act. Lower courts sided with Google.
The AP reports that, following arguments, the court seemed unlikely Tuesday to side with the plaintiffs, who want to hold Google liable for the death of their daughter in the Paris attack.
At the same time, the justices also signaled in arguments lasting 21⁄2 hours that they are wary of Google’s claims that Section 230 affords it, Twitter, Facebook and other companies
far-reaching immunity from lawsuits over their targeted recommendations of videos, documents and other content.
On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments in Twitter vs. Taamneh, a case that involves the death of Jordanian citizen Nawras Alassaf. He died in the 2017 attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul where a gunman affiliated with the Islamic State killed 39 people, per the AP.
Alassaf’s relatives sued Twitter, Google and Facebook for aiding terrorism, arguing that the platforms helped the Islamic State grow and did not go far enough in trying to curb terrorist activity on their platforms. A lower court let the case proceed.
So, what happens if Section 230 goes away?
“The primary thing we do on the internet is we talk to each other. It might be email, it might be social media, might be message boards, but we talk to each other,” Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University specializing in internet law, told The Associated Press. “And a lot of those conversations are enabled by Section 230, which says that whoever’s allowing us to talk to each other isn’t liable for our conversations.
“The Supreme Court could easily disturb or eliminate that basic proposition and say that the people allowing us to talk to each other are liable for those conversations. At which point they won’t allow us to talk to each other anymore.”