Section 230 Liability Shield To Face Scrutiny This Week At U.S. Supreme Court

February 20, 2023 CEP Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in two cases that raise questions about liability shields afforded to tech companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The cases are Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter Inc. v. Taamneh. The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) and CEP Senior Advisor Dr. Hany Farid have filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the petitioners in Gonzalez, urging the Court to reverse a favorable ruling for Google in the Ninth Circuit, which applied a broad interpretation of the law in question.

In Gonzalez, the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student killed in November 2015 during an ISIS attack at a Paris restaurant, contends that Google-owned YouTube aided in ISIS’s recruitment by recommending ISIS videos through its algorithms and is therefore not shielded from legal liability. In Taamneh, the Court will consider the liability of online platforms that fail to impede use by terrorists under the Anti-Terrorism Act. 

CEP has long advocated for reform, calling for changes to Section 230 to remove blanket immunity for harmful material, such as terrorist content, posted by third parties, and for the liability shield protecting platforms that knowingly or recklessly deploy recommendation algorithms to promote terrorist content to be lifted as well.

In its amicus curiae brief, CEP and Dr. Hany Farid argue and cite public reporting and Google’s own statements that Google’s recommendation algorithms are not “content-neutral” as the company maintains and that it “pushed ISIS videos onto the devices of terrorists” to monetize content. Further, without the benefit of being granted discovery on Google’s recommendation algorithms, it is impossible for the Court “to understand and realize the extent to which Google has intentionally adjusted its YouTube recommendation algorithms” and “reveal the business relationship between Google’s advertising placement algorithms and its recommendation algorithm, and how these two systems aggressively monetize or demonetize categories selected by Google management.”

To read the amicus curiae brief, please click here.

In March 2020, Dr. Farid co-authored a study, A Longitudinal Analysis Of YouTube’s Promotion Of Conspiracy Videos, that analyzed YouTube’s policies and efforts towards curbing its recommendation algorithm’s tendency to spread divisive conspiracy theories. After reviewing eight million recommendations over 15 months, they determined the progress YouTube claimed in June 2019 to have reduced the amount of time its users watched recommended videos including conspiracies by 50 percent—and in December 2019 by 70 percent—did not make the “problem of radicalization on YouTube obsolete nor fictional.” The study ultimately found that a more complete analysis of YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations showed the proportion of conspiratorial recommendations are “now only 40 percent less common than when YouTube’s measures were first announced.”

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On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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