Twitter, Meta and a handful of tech associations said if the Supreme Court strikes down certain protections for internet providers under a controversial provision, it could make online companies less useful and less safe for the public, according to briefs filed Thursday.
Taken together, the briefs, along with one filed by Google last week, show the tech industry putting up a joint front in urging the highest court against ruling to create a more narrow scope for protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in a case against Google.
Section 230 provides a legal liability shield to protect internet companies over content posted by third parties.
The case before the Supreme Court is based on allegations against Google subsidiary YouTube raised by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen killed in a 2015 Islamic State terror attack in France. The Gonzalez family alleges that YouTube provided a platform for terrorist content and recommended videos that incited violence and recruited potential Islamic State supporters through its algorithm.
Twitter, Meta and the tech associations said that if the Supreme Court’s decision strikes down some Section 230 protections, it would have far-reaching implications for other internet companies, as well.
A key issue at play in the court’s decision is whether or not Section 230 protections should apply to internet providers insofar as their role in recommending content through their algorithms, not just hosting it.
The tech industry broadly argued through their briefs that the act of recommending content is intrinsic to how platforms provide content to users. The industry’s take contrasts with that of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which filed a brief last month that warned the Supreme Court against using an “overly broad” interpretation of the provision.
Meta said a distinction between presenting user-generated content and “targeted recommendations” is “illusory.”
“So-called ‘targeted recommendations’ reflect nothing more than how online services organize and display content. They differ from other more static organizational choices only in that they harness the power of the internet to personalize content on a user-by-user basis rather than through a one-size-fits-all approach,” Meta’s brief states.
Meta added that if changes are to be made to Section 230, they should come from Congress and not the court.
Although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised the idea of reforming Section 230, Republicans and Democrats approach the need for reform from opposite sides of the issue. Democrats broadly say the provision gives companies a pass to host too much hate speech and misinformation, whereas Republicans say it allows companies to have too broad a reach in removing content and to do so in a way that the GOP alleges is biased towards conservatives.
The standoff means any changes to Section 230 are largely expected to come from the courts.
In Twitter’s brief, the company makes an argument similar to Meta’s that recommending, or organizing, content is part of how internet companies must operate. Twitter’s brief states there is “no principled or administrable line” to distinguish YouTube’s recommendations at the center of the case from how any internet provider, whether it be a social media company or search engine, provides results for queries or posts for users.
“What Plaintiffs style as ‘recommendations’—a sidebar displaying thumbnails of videos similar to what the user has watched previously—are simply a means of making particular content available to users,” Twitter’s brief states.
“If YouTube’s selective displays fall outside Section 230(c)(1), it is unclear how countless other publication choices that implicitly prioritize certain content are protected, including search engines returning ranked results, news feeds filtering based on geographical location, or information feeds displaying content from only followed accounts,” Twitter added.
Along with the tech companies’, several briefs were filed Thursday defending a broad interpretation of Section 230 in the case that were led by the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Computer & Communications Industry Association and Chamber of Progress
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The tech groups argued, as well, that changes to strike down the provision’s protections would broadly impact companies’ ability to provide safe and useful platforms for users.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hold oral arguments in the case next month, along with a companion case, Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh.
At the same time, the court may take up a case against content moderation laws in Florida and Texas that could also help decide the fate of Section 230.
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