It's been a long time coming, but the Supreme Court is finally ready to take a hard look at the lifeblood of the internet. On February 20th, CBS News reported the Supreme Court was preparing to review Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has been shielding tech companies from lawsuits over third-party content for decades. The challenge to Section 230 comes in the form of a case brought against Google by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student killed in the 2015 Paris terror attacks. As SFist noted earlier this month, even President Biden has thrown in his two cents on the matter in his recent State of the Union address.
Some argue that overturning Section 230 could re-shape the 'fundamental architecture' of the Internet. One of the specific questions before the Justices is whether Section 230's protections for platforms extend to targeted recommendations by the platform's algorithms, a dispute that arose after the Paris attacks, in which Gonzalez's parents & family members filed a civil lawsuit against Google. Per the CBS News, the case alleges that the tech company aided & abetted ISIS. The NY Times also reported that if the Supreme Court limits the scope of Section 230, it could drastically change how companies approach content posted to their sites, with a greater risk of costly litigation with fewer protections.
Section 230 allows platforms to organize millions of pieces of third-party content, enhancing the experience for users – something that Ron Wyden and Chris Cox, the co-authors of the law, argued entitled platforms to liability protection under the law since recommendations are merely responding to user preferences. But this wasn't the only argument before the justices, for example Taiwanna Anderson sued TikTok after her 10-year-old daughter died from the "Blackout Challenge" which was recommended to her through her account's "For You" page.
The internet has fueled a multi-billion-dollar industry of independent online creators who rely on Big Tech platforms to reach new audiences and monetize their content. Big Tech seems to be worried, knowing that if the Supreme Court limits the scope of Section 230, it could drastically reduce the ability of platforms to organize millions of pieces of third-party content, thus reducing the experience for users & the ability to monetize their content.
Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google's general counsel, told the Times, “It’s critically important that it stands as it is” in reference to Section 230. Conversely, Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, proclaimed, “The companies figured it out”– likely referring to the fact that Big Tech will have the ability to navigate a reduction in hate speech that could require some amount of oversight or moderation by the platforms.
It remains to be seen how this case will play out in the Supreme Court, and whether or not Big Tech will come out on top, but as President Biden said in his State of the Union address, “We need bipartisan action from Congress to hold Big Tech accountable. We’ve heard a lot of talk about creating committees. It’s time to walk the walk and get something done.” Only time will tell.
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