(New York, N.Y.) — Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Gonzalez v. Google, which challenges tech companies’ broad immunity to lawsuits over content posted on their sites and platforms. The family of Nohemi Gonzalez, an American college student killed in a restaurant in Paris during the November 2015 ISIS attacks, argues that the liability shield provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act do not apply when algorithms actively promote terrorist content. Specifically, the Gonzalez family contends that Google-owned YouTube aided in ISIS’s recruitment by recommending ISIS videos to users—including potential supporters of the terror group—through its algorithms.
A ruling against Google from the highest U.S. court would have wide-ranging implications for the sweeping protection provided to tech firms under Section 230. The Counter Extremism Project (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. Further, the liability shield protecting platforms that knowingly or recklessly deploy recommendation algorithms to promote terrorist content should also be lifted.
CEP Senior Advisor and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Hany Farid stated, “Tech companies such as YouTube are for-profit businesses and therefore have a strong business incentive to increase engagement across their platform. One way they have been able to achieve increased engagement as well as drive up revenues is through algorithmic amplification. However, it is also this algorithmic amplification that is a driving force for spreading extremist content online. Although it remains to be seen how the court will rule, tech companies still need to be held liable for increasing engagement on their platforms through promoting terrorist content, and this case is an important milestone in that regard.”
In March 2020, Dr. Farid and other UC Berkeley researchers 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, researchers 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.”