John Roberts, chief justice of the US Supreme Court, from left, Elena Kagan, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, ahead of a State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.
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The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in a potentially groundbreaking case with the potential to alter the force of a key law that the tech industry says has been critical to keeping the internet an open place that fosters free speech.
That case is known as Gonzalez v. Google, brought by the family of an American who died in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. The petitioners argued that Google and its subsidiary YouTube did not do enough to remove or stop promoting ISIS terrorist videos seeking to recruit members, which they argue is a violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act. In the lower courts, Google won on the basis that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields it from liability for what its users post on its platform.
Now that very shield is at stake as the petitioners argue it should not apply where Google actively promotes user-generated content, like through its recommendation algorithms.
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would likely cheer a narrowing of Section 230, which has been under fire in Washington for years for reasons ranging from the belief it fuels alleged internet censorship to the conviction that it protects tech companies that do little to stop hate speech and misinformation on their platforms.
But tech platforms and many free speech experts warn that changing Section 230 will have broad implications for how the internet operates, incentivizing popular services to limit or slow down user posting to avoid being held liable for what they say.
“Without Section 230, some websites would be forced to overblock, filtering content that could create any potential legal risk, and might shut down some services altogether,” General Counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado wrote in a January blog post summarizing Google’s stance. “That would leave consumers with less choice to engage on the internet and less opportunity to work, play, learn, shop, create, and participate in the exchange of ideas online.”
Justice Clarence Thomas has previously written that the court should take up a case around Section 230, suggesting it’s been applied too broadly and that internet platforms should perhaps instead be regulated more like utilities due to their widespread use to share information.
The Supreme Court will also hear a separate tech case on Wednesday that could have implications for how platforms promote and remove speech on their sites. In Twitter v. Taamneh, the court will consider whether Twitter can be held accountable under the Anti-Terrorism Act for failing to remove terrorist content from its platform.
WATCH: Should social media companies be held liable for user content? The consequences of changing section 230