WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a challenge to the sweeping legal immunity that shields internet companies from lawsuits over user-generated content, a case with potentially enormous consequences for social media.
A provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act known as Section 230 was intended to protect free expression on the internet by shielding internet companies from liability for much of the content their users post on their platforms. The law also protects the companies from lawsuits for removing content that violates their policies.
But the law has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans amid questions about whether social media companies have become too powerful.
Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen, was killed in an Islamic State group attack in Paris in 2015. Her family sued Google, alleging it was partly responsible because it promoted videos and other content that propagated the group’s message. The question in the case is whether Google is entitled to Section 230 protections when it recommends content to other users, even when that process is handled by an algorithm.
The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that Section 230 protects the companies from lawsuits but also raised concerns with the law.
The case, Gonzalez v. Google, appeared designed to catch the attention of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who has questioned Section 230 in other contexts.
The Supreme Court on Monday granted a separate but related case about whether Twitter, Google and Facebook could be held liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act for “aiding and abetting” the Islamic State group. The platforms, the plaintiffs argued, played an important role in the rise of the Islamic militant organization. That case, however, doesn’t directly involve questions about protection from liability under Section 230.
The Supreme Court dismissed as moot a high-profile case last year about whether former President Donald Trump was on solid legal ground when he blocked several of his critics on Twitter back when he was in office. But Thomas, in a concurrence, lamented the power of social media companies and indicated that they might be treated differently under the law.
"Much like with a communications utility, this concentration gives some digital platforms enormous control over speech," Thomas wrote. "When a user does not already know exactly where to find something on the Internet – and users rarely do – Google is the gatekeeper between that user and the speech of others 90% of the time."
Contributing: Jessica Guynn
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court to debate liability protections for internet companies