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Tech experts ask Supreme Court to rule that Section 230 protections apply to algorithmic recommendations

Experts asked the Court to rule that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act applies to recommended content.


Jacob Seitz


Posted on Jan 18, 2023

Tech experts filed an amicus brief Wednesday in a landmark Supreme Court case that could decide the future of Section 230.

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a tech advocacy nonprofit, along with six tech experts, filed a brief in Gonzalez v. Google to argue that Section 230 should shield providers from liability for recommended content.

Section 230, a part of the Communications Decency Act, protects tech companies from lawsuits for harmful or incendiary content that gets posted on their platforms. 

The case, which will be the first Supreme Court case on Section 230, stems from the family of a woman who was killed in the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. The family argued that through the recommended videos on YouTube—which is owned by Google—users were being shows ISIS recruitment videos and therefore the company is partially responsible for the death of their daughter.

CDT, along with experts, is asking the court to rule in favor of Google in the case, saying the case is treating Google as a publisher, not a provider.

“At issue in Gonzalez is whether Section 230 shields Google from liability for allegedly recommending ISIS content posted to YouTube to other YouTube users,” CDT said in a press release. “Petitioners in this case argue that Section 230(c)(1), which shields intermediaries from liability for ‘publishing’ third-party content, applies only to claims based on the ‘display’ of content, not the ‘recommendation’ of content.”

The organization said that this distinction is unworkable.

“If liability is based on whether online service providers use ‘recommendations’ or whether recommendations are ‘targeted,’ then a variety of crucial tools for content moderation may become legally discouraged. Even search engines, music streaming, and online shopping services may become legally difficult to operate, because there is no clear technical difference between the algorithms they use to select and order content and what social media platforms do,” Jonathan Stray, a Senior Scientist at the Center for Human-Compatible AI at UC Berkeley, added in the brief.

CDT warned of the dangers that could come if the Court sided against Google.

“If the Court holds that claims based on recommendations are not shielded by Section 230, providers will be discouraged from using novel ranking algorithms to help users find useful content and for content moderation,” the release said. “It also explains that such a holding would create strong incentives for providers to limit speech by over-removing content, for fear of potential liability.”

Section 230 has become a hot-button issue for politicians and tech experts in the past half-decade. Democrats and Republicans agree that there needs to be stronger regulation on the protection but for different reasons, and can’t agree on what exactly needs to be done or changed.

President Joe Biden recently came out in support of a reformed 230 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Conversely, former President Donald Trump said in a campaign video he would set new standards that platforms have to meet to gain protection under Section 230.

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*First Published: Jan 18, 2023, 4:20 pm CST