• The US Supreme Court will soon hear a pivotal case that could decide how much legal protection tech companies have from content posted on their services. 
  • One prominent legal scholar said the case could "end the internet as we know it."
  • Some observers say the court is likely to rule against tech companies, making them liable for content on their sites.

judge's gavel resting on a wireless Mac keyboard

The US Supreme Court may soon change how you use the internet. 

The court is expected to hear cases in the coming months that will examine the legal protections of social media companies. Observers say the stakes couldn’t be higher for both users and the tech industry. 

“If the Supreme Court rules against tech companies, it will end the internet as we know it,” Raymond Ku, a law professor who writes on technology and civil liberties at Case Western Reserve University, told Lifewire in an email interview. “I am not one for histrionics, but imposing liability on search engines, social media, or other communications services for the speech of their users would dramatically limit the information and communications we could share and receive.”

A Question of Gatekeeping

The Supreme Court will hear a case that threatens tech companies’ broad immunity to lawsuits over content hosted on their platforms. It’s the first time the court will weigh in on Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects platforms from being sued over most third-party content on their sites. In the upcoming Gonzalez v. Google LLC case, the court may decide whether those protections are too far-reaching regarding recommendations of terrorist videos from Google’s YouTube.

The case was brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The family sued Google, which owns YouTube, for helping ISIS by hosting ISIS recruitment videos on YouTube.

The current belief is that Section 230 protects Google against liability over the third-party posting of videos. But Gonzalez’s suit alleges that Google recommended ISIS videos to users. The court will decide whether Section 230 grants immunity for recommendations made by algorithms pushing certain content for users or if it only applies to editorial changes. 

Michael Smith, a professor of information technology and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, said in an email interview with Lifewire that the initial goal of that law was “to balance two important social interests: giving social media platforms the legal protections they need to allow individual users to post content, and giving social media platforms the incentives they need to police their platforms from socially harmful content.”

However, Smith said, courts have interpreted Section 230 as a complete shield against any legal liability social media platforms might face for what they host on their platforms. 

"So, if someone wants to use a social media platform to post an ISIS recruitment video, or to discuss plans to overthrow a presidential election, or to share a video of a minor being sexually exploited, the platform faces no legal liability for hosting—or for how they design their platform to accommodate or promote harmful content," he added.

A Ruling That Could Reverberate Throughout the Internet

If the ruling goes against big tech companies, users may eventually see big changes, Constitutional law professor Jared Carter of Vermont Law and Graduate School told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"In short, it will have a major impact on big tech and social media as we know it—and this is a good thing," Carter added. "From our politics to our mental health, it makes little sense to continue allowing social media companies to essentially have free reign with their algorithms and to profit from exploiting our political divisions and our mental health."

Blue scales with computer coding terms

Ku, for one, thinks that tech companies should be fearful of the ruling. He said previously the odds were in favor of the tech companies and that the Supreme Court would defer to Congress if changes were needed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  

"However, several Justices on the Court have already expressed their disapproval of Section 230 and animosity towards big tech that makes such a prediction uneasy," Ku said. 

Art Shaikh, CEO of CircleIt, a privacy-focused tech communications company, told Lifewire via email that a decision in the case could hasten the abandonment of traditional social media platforms in favor of new technologies.

"One of the major things we have seen in terms of growth on our end is that our platform is used by many ex-Facebook and IG members to communicate with their family and friends," he added. "Either way the court rules, you will see more of an impact to the user base of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other traditional platforms. As more alternatives to social media are produced, this will continue to exacerbate the problem for Meta et al."

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