On Monday October 3rd, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases which could have enormous ramifications for the future of social media. Gonzalez v Google and Twitter v Taamneh both relate to the failure of social media platforms to responsibly regulate terrorist content, which, on the contrary, was promoted to certain users through their dispassionate algorithm. The family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in the 2015 IS Paris attacks, allege that the sharing and recommending of inciting content on Youtube, was potentially crucial to Islamic State radicalisation and recruitment.
Social Media companies have long been shielded from liability for information published on their platforms under the Communications Decency Act, which ensures that ‘no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information’. Defenders of the Act have asserted that it is a cornerstone of free speech on the internet, whilst its detractors, who count President Biden amongst their number, argue that section 230 hurts the national discourse by removing what they contend is a necessary obligation to moderate content. Without their hands on the tiller, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and others tacitly propagate false and damaging information. The primary objection of the legislation’s detractors is that platforms are no longer passive membranes for third-party opinions. As former Attorney General Bill Barr puts it, social media sites ‘no longer function as simple forums for posting content, but use sophisticated algorithms to suggest and promote content and connect users’.
A revocation of section 230 exposing social media platforms to complete liability would seem unlikely. Yet, even a judgement which found that the Communications and Decency Act does not apply in these instances would be of enormous consequence to Big Tech, placing a greater onus onto these companies to filter the most damaging instances of misinformation and violent content. Social media has evolved and the internet has changed massively since its inception, maybe it’s time lawmakers revisited the drawing board.
Header image courtesy of creative commons (licensed for free use under the creative commons license).