Google tells Supreme Court: Don’t undercut the internet


Animated illustration of the Supreme Court's columns as computer text cursors.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Google filed a key defense brief Thursday in a Supreme Court case that could reshape the legal landscape for online publishers and services.

Driving the news: Google told the court that tampering with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects firms from liability for content their users post, would “undercut a central building block of the internet.”

Why it matters: Gonzalez v. Google, the case that the Supreme Court will hear next month, will decide whether Section 230’s protections apply to the algorithms that YouTube and other platforms use to select what content to show users.

Background: In Gonzalez v. Google relatives of victims of an ISIS attack are suing Google-owned YouTube for allegedly helping turn viewers into terrorists.

  • Justice Clarence Thomas has suggested the court place new limits on the reach of Section 230.
  • Plaintiffs argue that Section 230’s protection does not extend to algorithmically created recommendations, since YouTube plays a role in deciding which videos to recommend to users.
  • Google contends Section 230 protects YouTube’s methods of organizing users’ posts, and weakening the law would only make it harder to filter out terrorism content.

What they’re saying: “The stakes could not be higher. A decision undermining Section 230 would make websites either remove potentially controversial material or shut their eyes to objectionable content to avoid knowledge of it,” Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado wrote in a blog post.

  • “You would be left with a forced choice between overly curated mainstream sites or fringe sites flooded with objectionable content.”

  • “Legal risk for recommending or organizing content would reduce useful services like showing the best job listings, listing the most relevant products, or displaying the most helpful videos of recipes, songs, or sources of news, entertainment and information.”
  • DeLaine Prado writes that limiting Section 230 would impede access to information, curb free expression, harm businesses and allow more harmful content to stay online.

What’s next: Smaller tech companies also reliant on third-party content and other parties will file supporting briefs in the coming weeks.

Go deeper: Supreme Court’s liability case could scramble the online world



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