FP ExplainersOct 12, 2022 11:49:15 IST
Legislators have often debated whether social media platforms and search result aggregators should be held responsible for objectionable content that users post, which then gets recommended to different users by an algorithm, based on the user’s interest.
The Supreme Court of the United States of America is now going to consider a case against Google, which may settle the debate and potentially change the internet forever.
Gonzalez v. Google – What is the case?
The Supreme Court of the US is going to listen to the case of Gonzalez v. Google. The case was filed by the parents of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in the 2015 ISIS attack in Paris.
Gonzalez’s family is suing Google, claiming that YouTube, which is owned by Google, violated the Anti-Terrorism Act when its algorithm recommended ISIS videos to other users. The complaint states that YouTube not only hosts videos that are used by ISIS to recruit terrorists but also recommends these videos to users, instead of taking them down as per their content moderation policies.
A complicated issue
Google and several social media companies have been sued for the content that they host on their platforms earlier as well. However, they have sought protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states no computer service provider “shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information” published by another content provider, meaning its users.
Section 230 was incorporated because of a case from 1959, which held a bookstore owner liable for carrying a book that was illegal as well as ostracised on the grounds of being lewd. The book in question is a book called Sweeter Than Life, an erotic novel. The owner of the bookstore was given a 30-day jail term for possession of the book. However, a civil liberties attorney took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which held that the punishment violated the First Amendment.
Google and other social media platforms in several cases have argued that they are like the bookstore that carried the book, not the publisher who printed the book. The complaint by the Gonzalez family preempts this claim by stating that not only are YouTube and Google hosting such videos on their platforms, but they are also leading users on their platforms to such videos by recommending them to these videos.
The arguments that the US Supreme Court will hear in Gonzalez v. Google
Reynaldo Gonzalez, who brought the case, argues any platform’s legal liability should be limited to traditional editorial functions such as whether to publish, withdraw, or alter the content. Recommending content however is not a part of traditional editorial functions. Google, on the other hand, argues its recommendations are protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Google argues that if the court rules that YouTube recommendations can’t be shielded from legal liability, section 230 would be a dead letter. They also argued that the Court should not lightly adopt a reading of Section 230 “that would threaten the basic organizational decisions of the modern internet.”
District and appeals courts both sided with Google in this particular case. However, other appeals courts have ruled in favour of tech companies being held liable for recommendations.
What happens if Google loses Gonzalez v. Google?
In case Google wins the case, nothing changes. However, if Google loses the case the ramifications may be huge.
Google, YouTube and several social media platforms have often cited Section 230 and its fundamentals in lawsuits where they have been pulled up for content that they host. It has also allowed them to coyly state that the algorithm pushes certain types of content and that the algorithm has no bias, and mainly considers what people are engaging with. If Google loses the case, social media platforms will no longer be able to cite Section 230. Moreover, they will be held liable for not only the content they host but also for the content their algorithms recommend.
This is likely to be followed by a floodgate of lawsuits, not only against Google, but against Twitter, Meta and several other digital platforms. Even if the tech platforms try and settle each and every case that is filed against them, the total payout will be massive.
In all likelihood, not only will this force tech platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and Facebook to change how their algorithms recommend content, there is a very good chance that we may see recommendations altogether. Furthermore, there will be significant changes to SEO practices as well.