The Gonzalez vs Google Supreme Court case in the US could irrevocably change the online balance of power, if the justices decide that tech companies should be liable for the content their algorithms promote.
In 2015, Nohemi Gonzalez, an American foreign exchange student studying in Paris was killed by Islamic State terrorists. The Gonzalez family is suing Google, alleging that by recommending Islamic State-related content on YouTube it acted as a recruiting platform for the group, in violation of US aiding and abetting terrorists.
At present, online platforms are protected from being held liable for the content published on their platforms by Section 230 of the US’ 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Eric Schnapper, the Gonzalez family’s lawyer, argued that applying Section 230 to algorithmic recommendations incentivises platforms, from YouTube to Facebook, and beyond, to promote harmful content. He is urging the court to narrow the protections.
Google Lawyer Lisa Blatt told the Court that the immunity Section 230 grants is essential to tech companies’ ability to surface useful and safe content to users.
The Court hear oral arguments on Tuesday for more than two-and-a-half hours. The justices at the time were confused about the plaintiffs’ case and had concerns about potentially exposing companies to a wave lawsuits over how they handle user content.
However, they also drilled down into whether there should be a legal distinction between hosting content and amplifying user content when it came to assessing who was liable.
“They appear pursuant to the algorithms that your clients have. And those algorithms must be targeted to something. And that targeting, I think, is fairly called a recommendation, and that is Google’s. That’s not the provider of the underlying information,” said Chief Justice John Roberts.
Justice Neil Gorsuch added that “most algorithms are designed these days to maximise profits.”
It also mulled whether this decision would be best left to the US Congress.
“We really don’t know about these things. You know, these are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet,” said Justice Elena Kagan.
“Isn’t it better,” added Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to keep things the way they are and “put the burden on Congress to change that?”
The Supreme court will have another trial about another terrorist attack, this time the 2017 Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people and prompted a lawsuit against Twitter, Facebook, and Google.
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