Google Could Face Tidal Wave of Legal Threats After Supreme Court Ruling

A forthcoming decision from the U.S. Supreme Court could have massive ramifications for legal liabilities regarding the internet, possibly resulting in a wave of legal threats against companies like Google.

As of Tuesday, the Court is now hearing oral arguments in the case of Gonzalez v. Google. The family of Nohemi Gonzalez is suing YouTube, the massively popular video-sharing site and a subsidiary of Google, after the 23-year-old college exchange student was gunned down by ISIS-affiliated gunmen in a Paris restaurant in late 2015.

The family has argued that YouTube's recommendation algorithm surfacing ISIS content effectively acted as a recruitment tool for the terrorist group, violating U.S. law.

The SCOTUS decision in the case would impact the fate of Section 230, a provision to U.S. law passed in 1996 that protects internet platforms from legal culpability related to the content that individuals share on them. Google has argued that the provision applies to this situation, while the Gonzalez family has countered that it should not apply to recommendation algorithms.

google scotus decision ramifications
Above, a representational image of Google logos reflected in a person's eye. Google, and other internet companies, could face a wave of legal trouble depending on an upcoming Supreme Court ruling. Leon Neal/Getty Images

"If the Supreme Court limits Section 230 immunity based on how online platforms display or prioritize user-generated content, that would effectively eviscerate the immunity altogether," Sophia Cope, a senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote in a statement to Newsweek.

"To mitigate this new legal exposure, platforms would take drastic steps to censor user speech or alter the services they provide to users," Cope continued.

"As we wrote in our amicus brief, 'The judicial interpretation of Section 230 that Petitioners seek would be detrimental to all users' speech online. It would incentivize online services to take down even more user-generated content, and would likely limit services' ability to provide essential tools that organize content for users,'" she added.

The law has also become a major sticking point for lawmakers on both ends of the political spectrum, with each keen to revise it in different ways and enact more hands-on regulation of digital content.

Democrats, like President Joe Biden, have argued that the law allows internet companies to dodge responsibility for hosting hateful and dangerous content.

Republicans, like former President Donald Trump and his supporters in Congress, have argued that the companies remove too much content and that they have done so with an alleged, but unproven, bias against conservatives.

Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google's general counsel, told The Washington Post that the SCOTUS review of the case would put the company and others at greater risk of costly legal battles, threatening the health of technological and business growth.

"It goes beyond just Google," DeLaine Prado said. "It really does impact the notion of American innovation."

Speaking at a press briefing, Mary B. McCord, the executive director for the Georgetown Law Center Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said that it was unlikely that lawmakers could have foreseen the extent to which internet platforms could be abused when they drafted Section 230 in the '90s.

"It's implausible to think that Congress could have been thinking to cut off civil liability completely...for people who are victims of terrorism at the same time they were passing renewed and expanded legal authorities to combat terrorism," McCord said, according to the Post.

The Post also spoke to Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, who argued that giving the government too much control over internet content regulation could backfire.

"Once you give up power to the government over speech, you're not getting it back," Kosseff said in the Post article.

In her statement to Newsweek, Cope added that big tech companies would not be the only entities affected by strict changes to Section 230. It could have consequences all the way down to Twitter users retweeting things.

"It's also important to remember that Section 230 not only applies to the large social media platforms," Cope wrote. "It applies to any internet intermediary that connects content creators or speakers to audiences—this includes ISPs, web hosting companies, email providers, domain name registrars, and end-user services like review sites and discussion boards.

"So with a narrowed Section 230 immunity, all these companies would have to determine how to mitigate their legal risks for third-party content, either by censoring user speech or significantly altering what services they provide or how they provide those services, which at the end of the day would be bad for internet users."

Cope continued: "Section 230 also applies to users who themselves engage with third-party content, such as retweeting someone else's content or forwarding an email. Justice Barrett noted this more than once during today's oral argument."

While the Supreme Court could refine the interpretation of Section 230, only Congress maintains the ability to repeal or alter it. Several such proposals have been put forward, though none have yet been passed.

Updated 2/21/2023, 6:55 p.m. ET: This article has been updated with comments from Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Sophia Cope.