Two sensational lawsuits against social media have reached the US Supreme Court. The two put Section 230, a 27-year-old rule that protects Internet services from being responsible for the content that users publish, in crisis. A standard so fundamental to the contemporary Internet that it has been called “the 26 words that created the internet.”
Section 230 is linked to Net neutrality, it has allowed the platforms to become the public square where billions of users express themselves freely. It has also allowed them to do business by viralizing content that is harmful to democracy. For example, sexist and racist content, political manipulation campaigns based on fake news, or content designed to recruit terrorists. These two cases concern content designed to provoke the kind of terrorist attacks that killed Nohemi Gonzalez on a Paris terrace in 2015, and Nawras Alassaf in an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks. Now the relatives of Gonzalez and Alassaf accuse Google, Twitter and Facebook of having promoted their recruitment material and therefore of having been instrumental in the attacks, and are demanding compensation.
The arguments differ. Gonzalez vs. Google considers that, although the platforms are not responsible for the content uploaded by ISIS, they are responsible for amplifying its reach through their recommendation algorithms. Twitter against Taamneh it relies on an anti-terrorism law that prohibits assisting through a service in any act of terrorism in which a US citizen loses his life. If Twitter loses its case and Google loses its case, the consequences would be immediate. The platforms would be subject to a potentially infinite number of lawsuits, not only from victims of terrorism but also from libel, crimes against honor, etc. And also the users: if the algorithm is responsible for recommending content, then the user who retweets or votes with a “like” is responsible for amplifying the message and assisting the recommendation algorithm.
Worse yet, the prosecution was conducted by lawyers unable to convincingly argue any of their premises without reaching absurd conclusions. The important question is why the Supreme Court chooses two cases without merit, on the eve of a new General Election campaign, when there are others with more possibilities to reformulate the responsibility of digital platforms on the internet. If not, it will be an inoculation campaign to preserve the “neutrality” of the industry that has led to the assaults on government buildings in the United States and Brazil.