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Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Justices punt on challenge to protections for tech firms

A case before the Supreme Court threatened to shatter the shield Big Tech has relied on for over two decades to protect it from what users post.

WASHINGTON (CN) — On Thursday, the Supreme Court avoided deciding a suit against Google for recommending Islamic State group videos by siding with another tech giant in a similar case on its docket. 

In a per curiam ruling, the court said it no longer needed to resolve the dispute since the claims brought were dependent on the court finding social giants liable for Islamic State, or ISIS, content posted on their sites. 

“We need not resolve either the viability of plaintiffs’ claims as a whole or whether plaintiffs should receive further leave to amend,” the unsigned opinion reads. “Rather, we think it sufficient to acknowledge that much (if not all) of plaintiffs’ complaint seems to fail under either our decision in Twitter or the Ninth Circuit’s unchallenged holdings below.” 

By absolving social giants of their liability for hosting ISIS content in a case involving Twitter, the court sidestepped deciding the future of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that extends immunity to internet providers for what third parties post on their platforms.

“We therefore decline to address the application of §230 to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief,” the court wrote. “Instead, we vacate the judgment below and remand the case for the Ninth Circuit to consider plaintiffs’ complaint in light of our decision in Twitter.” 

Over two decades since Congress enacted Section 230, lawmakers have soured on the law, arguing it has not kept pace with new problems on the rapidly evolving internet. While Republicans and Democrats can agree that Section 230 no longer has their stamp of approval, Congress has yet to agree on what reform should look like. 

Gonzales v. Google asked the Supreme Court if Section 230’s immunity should be limited. U.S. citizen Nohemi Gonzales was in Paris, France, in 2015 when the Islamic State group carried out terrorist attacks in the city. Gonzales’ death led her family to bring a suit against Google, arguing its video website YouTube promoted ISIS recruitment videos that influenced the Paris attacker. 

The case targets YouTube’s algorithms, a complex programmed recommendation system feeding off user behavior. YouTube and other internet providers rely on algorithms to sort content for users. 

Gonzales' family argues Google not only allowed ISIS to post videos on its site but the group also used YouTube’s algorithm to amplify those videos, spreading them to a wide audience. If not for YouTube’s amplification, the family claims, the group would not have been able to incite the terrorist attacks.

The lower court, however, sided with the tech giant. A federal judge shut down the Gonzales family's claims under Section 230 and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court then agreed to hear the appeal to decide if Section 230 immunizes internet providers when they engage in editorial functions like targeted recommendations. 

Hearing arguments in the case in February, the justices seemed unsure of their ability to distill internet providers’ complex algorithms into a ruling governing internet law. 

“These are not the nine greatest experts on the internet,” Justice Elena Kagan said during oral arguments. 

Eric Schnapper, an attorney at the University of Washington School of Law representing the Gonzales family, told the justices that Google should be liable for its catalog of recommendations for users. Section 230 protects YouTube from the videos posted on its site, however, the family said the recommendation catalog should be considered the company’s creation and, therefore, not covered under the law’s protection. 

Google tried to remind the high court that Section 230 is responsible for the modern internet and that without it an essential tenant of American life could be altered. Lisa Blatt, an attorney for Google with Williams & Connolly, said removing liability protections for algorithms would call into question every search recommendation. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Business, Law, National, Technology

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