FP explainerOct 12, 2022 11:49:15 AM IST
Legislators have often debated whether social media platforms and search results aggregators should be held accountable for objectionable content that users post, which is then recommended to different users by an algorithm based on the user’s interest.
The US Supreme Court is now considering a case against Google that could settle the debate and potentially change the internet forever.
Gonzalez vs. Google – What is the case?
The US Supreme Court will hear the case of Gonzalez v. Google. The case was brought by the parents of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in the 2015 ISIS attack in Paris.
Gonzalez’s family is suing Google, alleging that Google-owned YouTube violated anti-terrorism law when its algorithm recommended ISIS videos to other users. The complaint states that YouTube not only hosts videos used by ISIS to recruit terrorists, but also recommends these videos to users rather than removing them under their content moderation policies.
A complicated subject
Google and several social media companies have previously been sued for the content they host on their platforms. However, they have sought protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that no computer service provider “shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of information” published by another content provider, i.e. its users.
Section 230 was included because of a 1959 case in which a bookstore owner was held liable for carrying a book that was illegal and ostracized for lewdness. The book in question is a book called sweeter than life, an erotic novel. The bookstore owner was sentenced to 30 days in prison for possession of the book. However, a civil liberties attorney took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the penalty violated the First Amendment.
Google and other social media platforms have argued on several occasions that they are like the bookstore that carried the book and not the publisher that printed the book. The Gonzalez family’s complaint preempts this claim by noting that YouTube and Google not only host such videos on their platforms, but also direct users on their platforms to such videos by recommending these videos to them.
The arguments the US Supreme Court will hear in the Gonzalez case against Google
Reynaldo Gonzalez, who brought the case, argues that each platform’s legal liability should be limited to traditional editorial functions, such as: B. the question of whether content should be published, withdrawn or changed. However, recommending content is not one of the classic editorial functions. Google, on the other hand, argues that its recommendations are protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Google argues that if the court rules that YouTube recommendations cannot be shielded from legal liability, Section 230 would be a dead letter. They also argued that the court should not lightly interpret Section 230 “which would jeopardize the fundamental organizational choices of the modern Internet.”
District and appellate courts have sided with Google in this particular case. However, other appellate courts have held tech companies liable for recommendations.
What happens if Google Gonzalez loses to Google?
If Google wins the case, nothing changes. However, if Google loses the case, the impact can be huge.
Google, YouTube, and several social media platforms have often cited Section 230 and its principles in court cases in which they have been used over content they host. It has also allowed them to timidly claim that the algorithm is driving certain types of content and that the algorithm is unbiased and mainly considers what people are engaging with. If Google loses the case, social media platforms can no longer rely on Section 230. Also, they are held liable not only for the content they host, but also for the content recommended by their algorithms.
This will likely be followed by a spate of lawsuits, not only against Google, but also against Twitter, Meta, and several other digital platforms. Even if the tech platforms try to settle every single case filed against them, the overall payout will be massive.
In all likelihood, not only will this force tech platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook to change the way their algorithms recommend content, there’s also a very good chance we’ll see recommendations overall. In addition, there will also be significant changes in SEO practices.