Yesterday(Tuesday, 21 of February, 2023) the American Supreme Court heard arguments from two sides: Google and the Gonzales family. And the verdict of this dispute, which sits at the hands of people who know nothing about the internet, might decide whether or not it will even continue to exist as we know it.
What is going on?
The lawsuit involves the murder of a 23-year-old college exchange student, Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed by Islamic State attackers in Paris, in 2015. The Gonzalez family claims that by promoting Islamic State content, a normal thing that most websites do by default, YouTube, which is a subsidiary of Google, functioned as a recruitment tool for the terrorist organization, which is against U.S. laws prohibiting assistance or support to terrorists.
Google argues that, in this case, due to the content not being produced by them, that they’re protected under Section 230 and therefore they’re protected from any liability in this case. Gonzalez family lawyer, Eric Schnapper, disagrees, saying that applying Section 230 to algorithmic recommendations provides an incentive to promote harmful content and asked the court to narrow down those protections.
What is Section 230
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is a law in the United States that provides immunity to online platforms, such as social media sites, from being held liable for user-generated content. This means that websites and internet service providers (ISPs) are not legally responsible for the content posted by their users.
Section 230 has two main provisions. The first provision states that online platforms cannot be held liable for content created by their users. The second provision allows online platforms to moderate or remove objectionable content without being held liable for the content they choose to leave up or take down.
This law was created in 1996 to encourage the growth of the internet and protect free speech online. It has been controversial in recent years, with some arguing that it enables online platforms to avoid responsibility for harmful content, while others argue that it is necessary for protecting free speech and promoting innovation online.
What is the big deal?
If section 230 is narrowed down or overruled, the internet as a whole could basically die. Websites like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Youtube, Google, Twitch, etc (basically any and all websites that let users post or do ANYTHING public) would be liable for whatever the users post, thus making them inviable money and administratively wise. Comment sections in blogs and forums would become a lot more strict, social media would be impossible as companies would need thousands more people to manually review every single post made, web hosts could also become reliable for the websites they host and their content, etc. This would basically destroy the internet, and be a massive negative hit for the global economy, as millions of people earn their money through generating content.
Worse of it all, this very serious matter is in the hands of very old people, who know nearly nothing about the internet. During yesterday’s session, the justices repeated multiple times that they were confused about the arguments being made. “I’m afraid I’m completely confused by whatever argument you’re making at the present time,” Justice Samuel Alito said early on.“So I guess I’m thoroughly confused,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said at another point. “I’m still confused,” Justice Clarence Thomas said halfway through arguments.
But it’s only in the United States?
While yes, it’s an issue that technically should only affect the United States, things are not so simple. Majority of the big web tech companies are hosted in the U.S. and moving their headquarters to a different country would be costly, and maybe even make them lose billions in investment that they currently have.
This could allow for new companies to emerge in other countries, filling the vacuum left behind by them, but by the time that happens millions of people would have spent months without a single penny. Just to give you an idea, in Brazil alone, youtube generated about 160 Thousand “Equivalent Jobs” in 2021, according to Bloomberg. The end of social platforms would be MASSIVELY impactful to the common folk, no matter however short it would be.
Is there hope?
The justice heard a little over 2 hours of arguments from both sides in the case, but were still confused about the arguments, which caused them to worry that the court could undermine an effort by Congress to provide immunity for the platforms decades ago, so for now there’s no certain outcome.
Gautam Hans, an associate clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, says he hopes Congress takes the lead, although he notes that lawmakers have not yet succeeded in passing any new legislation to this end. “This law was designed to be speech-maximizing, which is to say that by giving companies pretty broad immunity from liability, you allow companies to create platforms where people can speak without a lot of proactive monitoring,” he proclaimed.