Supreme Court avoids dispute over Internet recommendations
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday dodged a thorny debate over whether big tech companies like Google can be sued for their recommendations, in a case in which some experts warned it could fundamentally change the way the Internet works.
The Gonzalez v. Google case involved a controversial law called Section 230, which has been widely interpreted as protecting websites from lawsuits over user-generated content. The question for the court was whether recommendations – such as a suggestion to watch the next video on YouTube – fall under this law. By keeping Section 230, the court gave the social media companies a major victory.
The upshot was that the decisions will likely make it harder for Americans to sue tech companies for aiding and abetting terrorism, but the Supreme Court has postponed broader Section 230 questions to another day.
The two cases focused on families of people killed in terrorist attacks by the terrorist group Islamic State in Paris and Istanbul. The families sued the social media companies for recommending content they say helped the terror groups by helping them recruit.
But in a unanimous opinion from Judge Clarence Thomas, the court ruled that the link between what the social media companies were doing and the attack was “distant.” The families, Thomas wrote, “failed to willfully provide significant assistance to the defendants” or “otherwise to have knowingly participated in the Istanbul attack.”
Because the court ruled that the families were unable to file a valid claim under the Counterterrorism Act, which generally allows claims of aiding and abetting terrorism, the court said it did not have to deal with the Section 230 questions deal with and waived the individual cases in a brief, unsigned statement.
“The countless companies, academics, content creators and civil society organizations that have joined us in this case will be reassured by this outcome,” said Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google’s general counsel, in a statement. “We will continue our work to protect freedom. We encourage online expression, fight harmful content and support businesses and creators who thrive on the internet.”
The lawsuit against Google was filed by the family of a 23-year-old American man who was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The other dispute involved a Jordanian man who was killed in an ISIS attack in Istanbul in 2017. His relatives, who are US citizens, sued Twitter, Google and Facebook.
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During the February hearings, it became clear that judges at both ends of the ideological spectrum appeared concerned about a comprehensive decision. The tech firms had argued that liability for content recommendations could fundamentally change the way search engines, online shopping and other parts of the internet work.
The law was passed at a time when Americans were still dialing into the Internet. It states that “interactive…computer services” cannot be treated as publishers if they provide content posted by others. In other words, Twitter cannot be sued for a user’s offensive tweet. The law also protects Big Tech from liability for content moderation.
Section 230 has been heavily criticized by former President Donald Trump over allegations that social media companies are choking down conservative views. But many Democrats agree, for a variety of reasons, that the law needs updating.