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Should tech companies have immunity on problematic user content?


The Supreme Court weighed in on the politically contentious issue of whether tech companies should be given immunity over problematic user-posted content on Monday, agreeing to hear a case alleging YouTube aided and abetted the murder of a woman. American during the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris.

The family of Nohemi Gonzalez, one of 130 people killed in a series of linked attacks carried out by the militant Muslim group, have argued that YouTube’s active role in recommending videos overcomes the liability shield for internet companies that Congress imposed in 1996 as part of the Communications Decency Act.

Nohemi Gonzalez.State of California via Facebook

The provision, Section 230 of the law, states that Internet companies are not responsible for content posted by users. It has come under intense scrutiny from right and left in recent years, with conservatives saying companies censor content inappropriately and liberals saying social media companies spread dangerous right-wing rhetoric. The provision leaves it up to companies to decide whether certain content should be removed and does not require them to be politically neutral.

Gonzalez was a 23-year-old student studying in France when she was killed while dining in a restaurant during the wave of attacks, which also targeted the Bataclan concert hall.

His family is seeking to sue Google-owned YouTube for allegedly allowing ISIS to spread his message. The lawsuit targets YouTube’s use of algorithms to suggest videos to users based on content they’ve already watched. YouTube’s active role goes beyond the type of conduct Congress intended to protect with Section 230, according to the family’s attorneys. They say in court documents the company ‘knowingly allowed ISIS to post hundreds of radicalizing videos on YouTube inciting violence’ that helped the group recruit followers, some of whom later carried out attacks terrorists. YouTube’s video recommendations have been key in helping to spread the Islamic State message, the lawyers say. The plaintiffs do not allege that YouTube played a direct role in the murder.

Should tech companies have immunity on problematic user content?

Gonzalez’s relatives, who filed their lawsuit in 2016 in federal court in Northern California, hope to pursue allegations that YouTube violated a federal law called the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows people to sue people or organizations. entities that “aid and abet” terrorist acts. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, but it was revived by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a June 2021 ruling that also resolved similar cases brought by families of other corporate terror attacks. technologies.

Google’s lawyers urged the court not to hear the Gonzalez case, saying in part that the lawsuit would likely fail whether or not Section 230 applies.

The Supreme Court has previously declined to take up cases over Section 230, though conservative Justice Clarence Thomas criticized it, citing market power and the influence of tech giants.

Another related issue is likely headed to the Supreme Court over a law enacted by Republicans in Texas that seeks to prevent social media companies from banning users who make inflammatory political comments. On September 16, a federal appeals court upheld the law, which the Supreme Court in May blocked from taking effect.

In a separate move, the court also said it would hear a related appeal filed by Twitter over whether the company could be held liable under the terrorism law. The same appeals court that handled the Gonzalez case revived complaints filed by relatives of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian citizen killed in an Islamist attack in Istanbul in 2017. The relatives accused Twitter, Google and Facebook of aiding and abetting the spread of militant Islamic ideology. In this case, the issue of immunity under section 230 had not yet been addressed.

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