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The Supreme Court and social media platform liability

Brookings: “Over a quarter of a century after its 1996 enactment, the liability shield known as Section 230 is heading to the Supreme Court. Section 230(c)(1) provides, with some exceptions, that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content providers. This sentence is sometimes referred to as the “26 words that created the internet,” because it freed websites that host third-party content from the impossible task of accurately screening everything posted by their users. For example, if your neighbor posts a tweet falsely alleging that you are embezzling money from your employer, you can sue your neighbor for defamation. But a suit against Twitter will go nowhere. As the text of Section 230 makes clear, it is your neighbor and not Twitter that bears the liability for the defamatory tweet. But what about targeted recommendation decisions made by social media companies? For instance, a social media company will often recommend sports content to users who have a history of seeking out sports content. Are decisions about what content to recommend protected by Section 230? That question will soon be argued before the Supreme Court. On October 3, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Gonzalez v. Google, a case initiated by relatives of Nohemi Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen killed by ISIS terrorists in a November 2015 attack at a Paris restaurant. After the attack, the plaintiffs filed a claim in a California federal district court against YouTube’s owner Google under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which provides a cause of action for the “estate, survivors, or heirs” of a U.S. national killed in “an act of international terrorism.” In their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that “by recommend[ing] ISIS videos to users, Google assists ISIS in spreading its message and thus provides material support to ISIS.” The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that multiple of the plaintiffs’ claims “fall within the scope of [Section 230’s] immunity provision” and that “Google’s provision of neutral tools such as its content recommendation feature does not make Google into a content developer under section 230.” The plaintiffs then appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Citing its own 2019 precedent in Dyroff v. Ultimate Software Group, the Ninth Circuit affirmed in 2021, writing that a “website’s use of content-neutral algorithms, without more, does not expose it to liability for content posted by a third party.” Notably, two of the three judges on the Gonzalez v. Google panel—one in concurrence and one in dissent—argued that recommendation decisions should not be protected by Section 230. After the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the plaintiffs sought and have now been granted Supreme Court review. The Supreme Court appears highly likely to use Gonzalez v. Google to limit the scope of Section 230’s liability protections. When the Court declined in October 2020 to review Malwarebytes v. Enigma Software Group (a case that involved a different provision of Section 230), Justice Thomas penned a detailed criticism of broad interpretations of Section 230. After noting that such interpretations “confer sweeping immunity on some of the largest companies in the world,” he concluded that “we need not decide today the correct interpretation of §230. But in an appropriate case, it behooves us to do so.” Two years later, at least four justices—almost certainly including Justice Thomas—have agreed that Gonzalez v. Google presents the right opportunity for the Court to weigh in on the scope of Section 230….”

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