Meta, Microsoft, Twitter and other tech companies came to Google’s defense in a series of legal briefs filed Thursday in a U.S. Supreme Court case that could fundamentally change how the Internet works. Companies Supreme Court Justices Gonzalez v. Google, which aims to determine whether online companies should be held responsible for the content they recommend to users. They fear a revision of Article 230 of the Communications Decency Act that could destroy the Internet.
Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act (CDA), enacted in 1996, helps protect online companies from liability arising from what is posted on their platforms. Many experts consider Section 230 fundamental to how the Internet works today. Section 230 has become a target of legislation in recent years, with companies or online platforms arguing that an amendment to the section could have significant implications for the technology sector. However, the issue divides industry players.
For now, section 230 continues to protect online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google from legal action related to their users’ posts (comments, reviews, ads, etc.). However, the legal battle in Gonzalez v. Currently in the US, Google is threatening to breach this protection. Google-owned YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has been accused of promoting terrorist-related videos. The US Supreme Court is considering whether the time has come to limit this law, which was written before the Internet became a central part of everyday life.
But on Thursday, scores of corporations, Internet users, academics and even human rights experts defended the Section 230 shield and urged the court to cut the case short. In addition to Meta and Twitter, the group of companies included Yelp and Microsoft, usually Google’s competitors. Craigslist, Reddit, and a number of volunteer Reddit moderators also participated. Even some of the most vocal critics of Big Tech in general, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have come forward as friends of the court and warned of the consequences of such a lawsuit.
A court ruling striking down the law would strip these digital publishing decisions of key, long-standing protections from lawsuits that are “illogically at odds with how the algorithms actually work,” Microsoft said. Reddit and its moderators say a ruling allowing lawsuits against tech industry algorithms could even lead to future lawsuits against non-algorithmic forms of recommendation and potentially targeted lawsuits against individual Internet users. They warn of a serious precedent.
The entire Reddit platform is built around users recommending content for the benefit of others by taking actions such as upvoting and banning content. “The implications of petitioners’ argument in this case should not be misconstrued: their theory would greatly expand the potential for internet users to be prosecuted for their online interactions,” read Reddit and its moderators’ petition. Yelp, a longtime Google adversary, told the court that its business depends on delivering relevant, non-fake reviews to its users.
Thus, a judgment creating liability for its recommendation algorithms could undermine Yelp’s core functions by forcing it to stop building all reviews, even those that may be manipulated or false. If Yelp didn’t have the ability to analyze and recommend reviews without taking its own responsibility, those fake review submission costs wouldn’t exist. If Yelp displayed every review submitted, business owners could submit hundreds of positive reviews for their business with little effort or risk of penalty, San Francisco-based Yelp writes.
Section 230 ensures that online platforms can manage content to provide users with the most relevant information from the vast amount of information added to the Internet every day. Twitter claims that it takes the average user about 181 million years to download all the data on the internet today. If displaying third-party content in a user’s feed is considered a mere ‘recommendation,’ then many services will potentially be held liable for all third-party content they post,” wrote Meta, the Facebook owner.
Thus, almost any decision about how to sort, select, organize and display third-party content can be interpreted as a “recommendation” of that content, Meta added. According to New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a rule that singles out algorithmic recommendation as a meaningful category of liability, even one that could “result in the loss or confusion of large amounts of valuable funds. speech”, especially the speech of marginalized or minority groups.
The tech companies, which have pitched themselves as friendly to the court, focus the bulk of their filings on warnings about how the ruling could hurt their products. Microsoft added that search engine Bing and its professional social network LinkedIn could suffer “disruptive and destabilizing effects of the general decision amending Section 230.” In a statement, Microsoft said that any changes to Section 230 are best left to Congress to decide. The US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on February 21.
On the prosecution side, a number of online child safety advocates such as Fairplay and Common Sense Media supported the Gonzalez family in the case, arguing that tech companies should face repercussions for the ways their products can harm children. According to some sources, the US government has partially sided with the Gonzalez family, arguing that in some cases social media companies should be held responsible for promoting harmful speech. Ziprecruiter and Indeed also support Google in this.
Sources: Microsoft (PDF), Yelp (PDF), Meta (PDF), Twitter (PDF), Reddit (PDF), New York University (PDF)
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