Meta, Twitter, Microsoft and Others Call on U.S. Supreme Court Not to Allow Algorithm Lawsuits, They Say It Could Ruin the Internet


Meta, Microsoft, Twitter and other tech companies have come to Google’s defense in a series of legal briefs filed Thursday in a US Supreme Court case that could fundamentally change the way the internet works. Companies urge Supreme Court justices to approach Gonzalez v. Google, which aims to determine whether online companies should be held liable for the content they recommend to users. They fear a revision to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which they say could ruin the Internet.

Enacted in 1996, Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act (CDA) helps protect online companies from liability arising from what is posted on their platforms. Many experts regard Section 230 as fundamental to how the Internet works today. In recent years, Section 230 has become the target of legislation, and companies or online platforms claim that an amendment to the section could have significant implications for the technology sector. The issue, however, divides industry players.

For now, Section 230 continues to protect online platforms – such as Facebook, Twitter and Google – from legal action related to their users’ posts (comments, reviews, advertisements, etc.). However, the legal battle Gonzalez v. Google, which is currently taking place in the United States, is threatening to break this protection. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, owned by Google, is implicated and accused of promoting videos related to terrorism. The US Supreme Court is considering whether it’s time to restrict this law, which was written before the internet became a central part of everyday life.

But scores of corporations, netizens, academics and even human rights experts on Thursday defended the Section 230 shield and called on the court to cut the case short. Apart from Meta and Twitter, the group of companies also included Yelp and Microsoft, which are usually Google’s rivals. Craigslist, Reddit and a set of volunteer Reddit moderators also got involved. Even some of the most vocal critics of Big Tech in general, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have also spoken as friends of the court to warn of the implications of such a trial.

A court ruling undermining the law would rob those digital publishing decisions of essential, long-standing protection from lawsuits, “illogically, at odds with how the algorithms actually work,” Microsoft said in its motion. Reddit and its moderators say a ruling allowing litigation against tech industry algorithms could lead to future lawsuits against even non-algorithmic forms of recommendation, and potentially targeted lawsuits against individual internet users. They warn of a serious precedent.

The entire Reddit platform is built around users recommending content for the benefit of others by taking actions such as upvoting and pinning content. “The consequences of the petitioners’ claim in this case should not be misunderstood: their theory would greatly expand the potential for internet users to be prosecuted for their online interactions”, can we read in the filing of Reddit and its moderators. Yelp, which is a longtime antagonist of Google, told the court that its business depends on delivering relevant, non-fraudulent reviews to its users.

So a judgment creating liability for recommendation algorithms could break Yelp’s core functions by effectively forcing it to stop curating all reviews, even those that may be manipulative or false. If Yelp didn’t have the ability to analyze and recommend reviews without incurring its own liability, those fraudulent review submission costs would disappear. If Yelp were to display every review submitted, business owners could submit hundreds of positive reviews for their own business with little effort or risk of penalty, writes Yelp, based in San Francisco.

Section 230 ensures that online platforms can moderate content in order to present users with the most relevant data from the huge amounts of information being added to the Internet every day. It would take an average user about 181 million years to download all the data on the web today, Twitter argued. If the mere act of displaying third-party content in a user’s feed is considered a “recommendation,” then many services will potentially be liable for nearly all of the third-party content they host,” writes Meta, Facebook owner.

Thus, almost any decision about how to sort, select, organize and display third-party content could be construed as a “recommendation” of that content, Meta added. According to New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, it is virtually impossible to conceive of a rule that singles out algorithmic recommendation as a meaningful category of liability, and could even “result in the loss or obfuscation of a massive amount of valuable speech”, especially speech from marginalized or minority groups.

Tech companies that have presented themselves as friends of the court have focused the bulk of their filings on warnings about how a judgment could harm their products. Microsoft added that its search engine Bing and its professional social network LinkedIn could suffer “the devastating and destabilizing effects of a general decision amending section 230”. In a statement, Microsoft said it’s best left to Congress to decide on any changes to Section 230. The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on February 21.

On the prosecution side, a number of child online safety advocates, such as Fairplay and Common Sense Media, have backed the Gonzalez family in the case, arguing that tech companies should face repercussions for the ways in which their products can harm children. According to some sources, the US government has partially sided with the Gonzalez family, arguing that in some cases social media companies should be held responsible for promoting harmful speech. Ziprecruiter and Indeed also supported Google in this case.

Sources: Microsoft (PDF), Yelp (PDF), Meta (PDF), Twitter (PDF), Reddit (PDF), New York University (PDF)

And you?

What is your opinion on the subject?
What do you think of the massive support from Google technology companies?
What do you think of CDA Section 230? are you for or against its revision? Why ?
In your opinion, are online companies responsible for the content published on their platforms?

See as well

Google warns US Supreme Court that tampering with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could bankrupt the internet and trigger devastating fallout

Supreme Court blocks Texas social media moderation ban, legal battle over HB 20 continues

New algorithm bill could force Facebook to change how News Feed works without changing Section 230

Experts Tell US Senators Social Media Algorithms Threaten Democracy, But Facebook, YouTube and Twitter Challenge This Allegation

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