Supreme Court justices aren't 'the 9 greatest experts on the internet,' Elena Kagan said as they heard a major tech case
The Supreme Court heard arguments in a high-profile tech challenge on Tuesday.
The justices appeared skeptical about limiting Section 230 protections.
Section 230 provides tech companies with legal immunity over the content shared on their sites.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed hesitant to make sweeping changes to how the internet works as it reviewed a landmark federal law that protects tech companies from being sued over the content shared on their sites.
"We're a court," Justice Elena Kagan said during more than two-and-a-half hours of oral arguments on the major tech case. "We really don't know about these things. You know, these are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet."
The high-profile challenge was brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American student killed in the 2015 ISIS attack in Paris. The family argued that Google should be held liable for its platform, YouTube, recommending ISIS videos to its interested users.
Besides Kagan, a majority of the justices on both sides of the ideological spectrum repeatedly expressed skepticism over limiting the legal immunity provided to companies like Google under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed by Congress in 1996.
"Congress drafted a broad text, and that text has been unanimously read by courts of appeals over the years to provide protection in this sort of situation and that you now want to challenge," Justice Brett Kavanaugh told attorney Eric Schnapper, representing the Gonzalez family. "Are we really the right body to draw back from what had been the text and consistent understanding in courts of appeals?"
Justice Clarence Thomas, who has previously called for the court to review Section 230, likewise raised questions about YouTube being legally responsible for how it promotes content.
YouTube applies its algorithm in a "neutral" way, showing cooking videos to users interested in cooking, racing videos to users interested in racing, and ISIS videos to users interested in ISIS, Thomas said.
"I'm trying to get you to explain to us how something that is standard on YouTube for virtually anything that you have an interest in suddenly amounts to aiding and abetting because you're in the ISIS category," he added.
It's the first time a challenge to the hotly contested Section 230 has come before the Supreme Court. The legal shield for the tech world has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Both Republicans and Democrats have attacked the provision, saying tech companies should be subject to some accountability for how they run their platforms.
But the reasons behind their criticisms differ. Former President Donald Trump had pushed for Section 230's repeal over claims that tech giants have an anti-conservative bias and limit free speech. President Joe Biden has said the companies should be held responsible for misinformation and hate speech spread on their platforms.
Big Tech CEOS, on the other hand, have balked at calls to demolish Section 230. The internet wouldn't be the same without the law, they warned.
Despite the justices' skepticism, however, some of them did question the broad legal immunity granted to tech companies during arguments on Tuesday.
"Isn't it true that that statute had a more narrow scope of immunity than courts have ultimately interpreted it to
have ... that it really was just about making sure that your platform and other platforms weren't disincentivized to block and screen and remove offensive content?" Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked attorney Lisa Blatt, who argued on behalf of Google.
The court is expected to hand down its decision in the case, Gonzalez v. Google, by June. The justices on Wednesday will hear a separate but related case concerning whether Twitter can be held liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act over claims that the social media company aided and abetted terrorism over ISIS content on its platform.
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