One single case coming up in front of the highest court in the U.S. could singularly determine how the internet can operate going forward, and you can bet your bottom dollar there’s a few tech companies, civil liberties groups, and politicians on both sides of the aisle willing to offer an opinion on the matter.
Last October, the Supreme Court announced it would hear the case Reynaldo Gonzalez v. Google, a case that could very well overturn nearly every aspect of the current way the internet works. It’s all based around the famous/infamous Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a small section of law that has kept tech companies and websites from being considered publishers of the content users post on their platforms.
What’s been dubbed Section 230, or often just “230,” remains the cornerstone of the internet, allowing companies to keep their websites running with user-made content without having to worry about outside entities and governments from either suing them or censoring their platforms. In that time, algorithmic-based content feeds have become par for the course on the world’s most-visited social media. All this has led to considerable differences in how different platforms moderate content. Gonzalez v. Google rests on the question of whether 230 has gone too far protecting companies from the content allowed on the internet.
The Gonzalez family sued Google over content shown on YouTube. It relates to the 2015 terror attack in Paris, when the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the 130 people killed and many more injured. Nohemi Gonzalez was a U.S. citizen killed in the attacks, and the family has claimed Google is responsible for the YouTube content that radicalized the people who committed the attack. Google, on the other side, has said it works constantly to remove such material from its platforms. The company has also said the potential loss of 230 would break the “central building block” of the internet.
Because the stakes couldn’t be higher, politicians, trade groups, civil liberty groups, and a number of other tech companies big and small have submitted briefs to the court, most of them extolled the benefits of Section 230, though a few Republican congresspeople and a few other organizations took issue with how the law’s been interpreted since 1996.
In an amicus brief supporting 230, Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman said that the law as it currently stands doesn’t just promote freedom of speech, it’s allowed a national standard that gives new companies more room to break through a crowded and near-monopolized online space. Without automated content systems, Goldman wrote that companies would be pushed toward “more costly solutions that would circumscribe author-users’ abilities to publish content of all types.”
While Goldman has also come down on states’ attempts to limit content moderation decisions, he’s not the only one claiming that 230 is the main way users’ speech is protected online. Numerous groups across the tech sphere and beyond posted friend of the court briefs, the vast majority of them supporting keeping 230 the way it is. Of course, these are just arguments and the nation’s top court judges have no requirement they even glance at them.
So yes, I read through a whole load of amicus briefs to gauge where various groups and prominent individuals stand on the Section 230 controversy. Here are a few of the most notable arguments. The Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in just a month, starting Feb. 21.