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Supreme Court to review law protecting social media platforms

Google and social networks will soon find themselves before the Supreme Court. In early October, the Supreme Court announced it would hear cases testing Section 230 – a legal provision that protects social media companies from liability for what people post on their sites.

What is Section 230?

Passed in 1996, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) helped establish the framework for the Internet as we know it today. It offers virtual immunity to social media companies, including Google, Meta (Facebook and Instagram), and Twitter. Near-total immunity prevents these social media networks from being held liable in civil lawsuits for what their users post.

Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service should be considered the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” In this parlance, users are responsible for the information on a social media network, not the network itself.

In recent years, advocates have called for reforms to Section 230. Former President Trump has called for reforms, alleging conservatives have been censored on social media. President Biden has also called for reforms to curb some hate speech found on social media. Section 230 reforms could change how the internet is used and monitored, what content is allowed, and how content is moderated.

Politicians are not the only interested group calling for action. Cybersecurity law experts are also paying attention. Jeff Kosseff, professor of cybersecurity law at the US Naval Academy, said he is also monitoring this case closely. “The full scope of Section 230 could be at stake, depending on what the Supreme Court wants to do,” he shared. Kosseff is also the author of a book on Section 230, “The Twenty Sex Words That Created The Internet”.

Article 230 Cases to be heard

A case in question involves YouTube, a Google subsidiary, and the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a student killed in an Islamic State attack in Paris in 2015. The family claims that YouTube “aids and abets” the attack. González c. Google claims that YouTube and its algorithms have recommended the Islamic State terrorist group’s video content to other users. Relatives allege in the lawsuit that YouTube used the data it collects about its users to recommend videos, photos and other content to others based on the data collected and the users’ shared interests. At the center of this lawsuit is the question of whether a company algorithms are protected under section 230. Lower courts have ruled that algorithms are protected.

The lawsuit alleges Google, YouTube’s parent company, knew its technology was aiding ISIS. When she asked the Supreme Court to hear this case, the the plaintiffs included that “The videos users viewed on YouTube were the central way in which ISIS gained support and recruited from areas outside of the parts of Syria and Iraq it controlled.” The plaintiffs allege that by recommending Islamic State videos to other users on YouTube, YouTube and Google helped the Islamic State spread its message of hatred and violence to others.

In response, Google argued that the plaintiff’s complaint “does not allege that terrorists saw such a recommendation or that such recommendations had any connection to the Paris attack.”

This is the first time the Supreme Court will hear a case related to Section 230. In addition to this case, the Supreme Court will also hear a case involving Twitter and a person killed in a terrorist attack in Istanbul in 2017. Relatives of Nawras Alassaf claim that Twitter, Google and Facebook violated anti-terrorism law by granting access to their social media accounts to the Islamic State. Twitter has requested that the Supreme Court hear this case if it hears the Google case.

In Twitter v. Taamneh, the heart of this case focuses on whether social media networks can be sued for aiding and abetting acts of terrorism when the networks host user content that may express support for the organization source of violence and violent attacks.

With the internet and social media companies entrenched in the numbers of people living and working, experts and tech companies across the country are watching these cases closely. Social media platforms are currently protected from civil lawsuits under Section 230 – but that could change if the Supreme Court rules in favor of relatives of those killed in terror attacks in Paris and Istanbul. These instances may alter the behavior of social media companies and other internet-related organizations with user-generated content.

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