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Section 230

Supreme Court Justices Express Caution About Entering Section 230 Debate

During oral arguments for Gonzalez v. Google, justices repeatedly voiced concerns about potential unintended consequences.



Photo of Justice Elena Kagan from April 2008 by Doc Searls used with permission

WASHINGTON, February 22, 2023 — Supreme Court justices expressed broad skepticism about removing liability protections for websites that automatically recommend user-generated content, marking a cautious start to a pair of long-awaited cases involving platform liability for terrorist content.

Gonzalez v. Google, argued on Tuesday, hinges on whether YouTube’s use of recommendation algorithms puts it outside the scope of Section 230, which generally provides platforms with immunity for third-party content.

A separate case involving terrorism and social media, Twitter v. Taamneh, was argued on Wednesday. Although the basic circumstances of the cases are similar — both brought against tech companies by the families of terrorist attack victims — the latter focuses on what constitutes “aiding and abetting” under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Section 230 arguments central to Gonzalez

Section 230 protections are at the heart of Gonzalez. The provision, one of the few surviving components of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, is credited by many experts with facilitating the internet’s development and enabling its daily workings.

But the plaintiffs in Gonzalez argued that online platforms such as YouTube should be held accountable for actively promoting harmful content.

As oral arguments commenced, Justice Elena Kagan repeatedly raised concerns that weakening Section 230 protections could have a wider impact than intended. “Every time anybody looks at anything on the internet, there is an algorithm involved… everything involves ways of organizing and prioritizing material,” she said.

These organization methods are essential for making platforms user-friendly, argued Lisa Blatt, the attorney representing Google. “There are a billion hours of videos watched each day on YouTube, and 500 hours uploaded every minute,” she said.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed to the inclusion of platforms that “pick, choose, analyze or digest content” in the statutory definition of covered entities. Claiming that YouTube forfeited Section 230 protections by using recommendation algorithms, Kavanaugh said, “would mean that the very thing that makes the website an interactive computer service also means that it loses the protection of 230.”

Eric Schnapper, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, argued that the provision in question was only applicable to software providers and YouTube did not qualify.

Justices concerned about unintended impacts of weakening Section 230

Despite Schnapper’s interpretation of the statute’s intent, Kavanaugh maintained his concerns about altering it. “It seems that you continually want to focus on the precise issue that was going on in 1996, but… to pull back now from the interpretation that’s been in place would create a lot of economic dislocation, would really crash the digital economy,” he said.

Weakening Section 230 could also open the door to “a world of lawsuits,” Kagan predicted. “Really, anytime you have content, you also have these presentational and prioritization choices that can be subject to suit,” she said, pointing to search engines and social media platforms as other services that could be impacted.

Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, who primarily sided with the plaintiff, argued that even if such lawsuits were attempted, “they would not be suits that have much likelihood of prevailing.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted that the text of Section 230 explicitly includes users of online platforms in addition to the platforms themselves. If the statute was changed, Barrett questioned, could individual users be held liable for any content that they liked, reposted or otherwise engaged with?

“That’s content you’ve created,” Schnapper replied.

‘Confusion’ about the case and the court’s proper role

Throughout the hearing, several justices expressed confusion at the complexities of the case.

During an extended definition of YouTube “thumbnails” — which Schnapper described as a “joint creation” because of the platform-provided URLs accompanying user-generated media — Justice Samuel Alito told Schnapper that the justice was “completely confused by whatever argument you’re making at the present time.”

At another point, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said she was “thoroughly confused” by the way that two different questions — whether Google could claim immunity under Section 230 and whether the company aided terrorism — were seemingly being conflated.

Just minutes later, after Stewart presented his argument on behalf of the Justice Department, Justice Clarence Thomas began his line of questioning with, “Well, I’m still confused.”

In addition to frequent references to confusion, multiple justices suggested that some aspects of the case might be better left to Congress.

“I don’t have to accept all of [Google’s] ‘the sky is falling’ stuff to accept… there is a lot of uncertainty about going the way you would have us go, in part just because of the difficulty of drawing lines in this area,” Kagan said. “Isn’t that something for Congress to do, not the court?”

Kavanaugh echoed those concerns, saying that the case would require “a very precise predictive judgment” and expressing uncertainty about whether the court could adequately consider the implications.

But Chief Justice John Roberts seemed equally hesitant to hand off the decision. “The amici suggest that if we wait for Congress to make that choice, the internet will be sunk,” he said.

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

Section 230

Supreme Court Sides With Google and Twitter, Leaving Section 230 Untouched

A wide range of tech industry associations and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision to leave Section 230 untouched.



Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas by Stetson University used with permission

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2023 — The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Google and Twitter in a pair of high-profile cases involving intermediary liability for user-generated content, marking a significant victory for online platforms and other proponents of Section 230.

In Twitter v. Taamneh, the court ruled that Twitter could not be held liable for abetting terrorism by hosting terrorist content. The unanimous decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who had previously signaled interest in curtailing liability protections for online platforms.

“Notably, the two justices who have been most critical of Section 230 and internet platforms said nothing of the sort here,” said Ari Cohn, free speech counsel at TechFreedom.

In a brief unsigned opinion remanding Gonzalez v. Google to the Ninth Circuit, the court declined to address Section 230, saying that the case “appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief.”

A wide range of tech industry associations and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision to leave Section 230 untouched.

“Free speech online lives to fight another day,” said Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “Twitter and other apps are home to an immense amount of protected speech, and it would be devastating if those platforms resorted to censorship to avoid a deluge of lawsuits over their users’ posts.”

John Bergmayer, legal director at Public Knowledge, said that lawmakers should take note of the rulings as they continue to debate potential changes to Section 230.

“Over the past several years, we have seen repeated legislative proposals that would remove Section 230 protections for various platform activities, such as content moderation decisions,” Bergmayer said. “But those activities are fully protected by the First Amendment, and removing Section 230 would at most allow plaintiffs to waste time and money in court, before their inevitable loss.”

Instead of weakening liability protections, Bergmayer argued that Congress should focus on curtailing the power of large platforms by strengthening antitrust law and promoting competition.

“Many complaints about Section 230 and content moderation policies amount to concerns about competition and the outsize influence of major platforms,” he said.

The decision was also celebrated by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the statute’s original co-authors.

“Despite being unfairly maligned by political and corporate interests that have turned it into a punching bag for everything wrong with the internet, the law Representative [Chris] Cox and I wrote remains vitally important to allowing users to speak online,” Wyden said in a statement. “While tech companies still need to do far better at policing heinous content on their sites, gutting Section 230 is not the solution.”

However, other lawmakers expressed disappointment with the court’s decision, with some — including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — saying that it “underscores the urgency for Congress to enact needed reforms to Section 230.”

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Broadband Roundup

White House Meets AI Leaders, FTC Claims Meta Violated Privacy Order, Graham Targets Section 230

The Biden administration announced $140 million in new funding for national AI research.



Photo of Vice President Kamala Harris by Gage Skidmore used with permission

May 5, 2023 — Vice President Kamala Harris and other senior officials on Thursday met with the CEOs of Alphabet, Anthropic, Microsoft and OpenAI to discuss the risks associated with artificial intelligence technologies, following the administration’s announcement of $140 million in funding for national AI research.

President Joe Biden briefly stopped by the meeting, telling the tech leaders that “what you’re doing has enormous potential and enormous danger.”

Government officials emphasized the importance of responsible leadership and called on the CEOs to be more transparent about their AI systems with both policymakers and the general public.

“The private sector has an ethical, moral and legal responsibility to ensure the safety and security of their products,” Harris said in a statement after the meeting.

In addition to the new investment in AI research, the White House announced that the Office of Management and Budget would be releasing proposed policy guidance on government usage of AI systems for public comment.

The initiatives announced Thursday are “an important first step,” wrote Adam Conner, vice president of technology policy at the Center for American Progress. “But the White House can and should do more. It’s time for President Joe Biden to issue an executive order that requires federal agencies to implement the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and take other key actions to address the challenges and opportunities of AI.”

FTC claims Facebook violated privacy order

The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday proposed significant modifications to its 2020 privacy settlement with Facebook, accusing the company of violating children’s privacy protections and improperly sharing user data with third parties.

The suggested changes would include a blanket prohibition against monetizing the data of underage users and limits on the uses of facial recognition technology, among several other constraints.

“Facebook has repeatedly violated its privacy promises,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The company’s recklessness has put young users at risk, and Facebook needs to answer for its failures.”

Although the agency voted unanimously to issue the order, Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya expressed concerns about whether the changes exceeded the FTC’s limited order modification authority. “I look forward to hearing additional information and arguments and will consider these issues with an open mind,” he said.

Meta responded to the FTC’s action with a lengthy statement calling it a “political stunt” and outlining the changes that have been implemented since the original order.

“Let’s be clear about what the FTC is trying to do: usurp the authority of Congress to set industry-wide standards and instead single out one American company while allowing Chinese companies, like TikTok, to operate without constraint on American soil,” wrote Andy Stone, Meta’s director of policy communications, in a statement posted to Twitter.

Meta now has thirty days to respond to the proposed changes. “We will vigorously fight this action and expect to prevail,” Stone said.

Sen. Graham threatens to repeal Section 230 if tech lobby kills EARN IT Act

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, a controversial bill that would create new carveouts to Section 230 in an attempt to combat online child sexual abuse material.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the bill’s cosponsor and ranking member of the committee, expressed doubt about the legislation’s future, claiming that “the political and economic power of social media companies is overwhelming.”

“I have little hope that common-sense proposals like this will ever become law because of the lobbying power these companies have at their disposal,” he said in a statement on Thursday. “My next approach is going to be to sunset Section 230 liability protection for social media companies.”

If Congress fails to pass legislation regulating social media companies, Graham continued, “it’s time to open up the American courtrooms as a way to protect consumers.”

However, large tech companies are not the only critics of the EARN IT Act. The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday urged Congress to reject the proposed legislation, alongside two other bills related to digital privacy.

“These bills purport to hold powerful companies accountable for their failure to protect children and other vulnerable communities from dangers on their services when, in reality, increasing censorship and weakening encryption would not only be ineffective at solving these concerns, it would in fact exacerbate them,” said Cody Venzke, ACLU senior policy counsel.

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Section 230

Narrowing Section 230 Could Destroy Smaller Platforms, Warns Nextdoor

Many small to mid-sized platforms operate on a business model that relies on content moderation.



Screenshot of Nextdoor Global Head of Policy Laura Bisesto from the CCIA webinar

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2023 — Narrowing Section 230 protections for online services could have significant economic repercussions, particularly for smaller platforms that rely on content curation as a business model, according to experts at a panel hosted by the Computer & Communications Industry Association Research Center on Tuesday.

“There’s really unintended consequences for the smaller players if you take a ‘one size fits all’ approach here,” said Laura Bisesto, global head of policy, privacy and regulatory compliance for Nextdoor.

Many small to mid-sized platforms operate on a business model that relies on content moderation, Bisesto explained. For example, Reddit hosts thousands of active forums that are each dedicated to a stated topic, and consumers join specific forums for the purpose of seeing content related to those topics.

Similarly, Bisesto claimed that Nextdoor’s proximity-based content curation is what makes the platform competitive.

“We want to make sure you’re seeing relevant, very hyper-local content that’s very timely as well,” she said. “It’s really important to us to be able to continue to use algorithms to provide useful content that’s relevant, and any narrowing of Section 230 could really impede that ability.”

Algorithmic organization is also crucial for large platforms that host a broad range of content, said Ginger Zhe Jin, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. The sheer volume of content on platforms such as YouTube — which sees 500 hours of new video uploaded each minute — would make it “impossible for consumers to choose and consume without an algorithm to sort and list.”

Without Section 230, some companies’ platforms might choose to forgo the use of algorithms altogether, which Jin argued would “undermine the viability of the internet businesses themselves.”

The alternative would be for companies to broadly remove any content that could potentially generate controversy or be misinterpreted.

“Either way, we’re going to see maybe less content creation and less content consumption,” Jin said. “This would be a dire situation, in my opinion, and would reduce the economic benefits the internet has brought to many players.”

Who should be updating Section 230?

In February, the Section 230 debate finally reached the Supreme Court in a long-awaited case centered around intermediary liability. But some industry experts — and even multiple Supreme Court justices — have cast doubt on whether the court is the right venue for altering the foundational internet law.

Bisesto argued that the question should be left to Congress. “They drafted the law, and I think if it needs to be changed, they should be the ones to look at it,” she said.

However, she expressed skepticism about whether lawmakers would be able to reach a consensus, highlighting the “fundamental disagreement” between the general Republican aim of leaving more content up and Democratic aim of taking more content down.

If the Supreme Court refrains from major changes, “pressure will increase for Congress to do something as the 50 different states are passing different statutes on content moderation,” said Sarah Oh Lam, a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute.

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