How a Supreme Court Ruling Could Change the Internet

Upcoming case might decide on objectionable content

  • Google and other tech companies are waiting for a supreme court decision that could affect how you use the internet. 
  • Google could lose its liability protection and be responsible for objectionable content posted on its sites. 
  • One expert said that an unfavorable ruling in the case could push users to alternative media services.
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An upcoming US Supreme Court decision may impact how you use the internet.

Google is facing a ruling in a case about YouTube's recommendation engine. The tech giant, which owns YouTube, is fighting to ensure it is covered under a legal liability protection known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Experts say the case could have wide-ranging consequences. 

"If the Supreme Court rules against social media companies in their coming term on the issues before them, we can pretty much expect the entire industry to be hollowed out in a matter of weeks," Nicholas Creel, a professor of business law at Georgia College and State University told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Anxiously Waiting for a Verdict

Google recently filed a defense brief in the case of Gonzalez V. Google, claiming that tampering with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects firms from liability for the content of their user's posts, would "undercut a central building block" of the internet.

"The stakes could not be higher," Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado wrote in a blog post. "A decision undermining Section 230 would make websites either remove potentially controversial material or shut their eyes to objectionable content to avoid knowledge of it."

If Google were to lose, the entire industry would immediately become one where censorship would go into overdrive...

Meta, Microsoft, Twitter, and other tech firms also came to Google's defense in legal briefs filed last week. Microsoft said in a filing that its search engine Bing and online forum LinkedIn could face "devastating and destabilizing effects" from a ruling. The company said changes to Section 230 should be left to Congress. 

One of the issues before the court examines whether social media companies, like YouTube, can be held accountable for the speech they allow on their platforms, while another case the court hears asks if social media companies are allowed to censor speech on their platform however they desire, Creel said. 

"Overall, the odds of social media companies losing the current slate of legal battles is pretty low," he added. 

An issue under examination is the situation in which social media companies are sued for hosting terrorist recruitment videos. In this circumstance, Section 230 protects the companies and allows content to be hosted on their platforms without fear of legal recourse. 

"So the Supreme Court would have to work in a tortured and unspecified exception to this law to see Google lose, which is fairly unlikely given that the law offers no clear room for exceptions," Creel said. "However, if Google were to lose, the entire industry would immediately become one where censorship would go into overdrive for fear that new unspecified exceptions might be written up by the court in the future."

Someone typing on a smartphone with notification icons overlaying the image.

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A First Amendment Issue

The Google case touches on free speech issues. Creel said that it is essential to remember that the First Amendment gives social media companies the right to de-platform people and speech they disagree with. 

"Just like a person can't be forced to sponsor speech they disagree with, companies can effectively silence speech from private individuals all they like and can do so with the full force of the First Amendment protecting them," he added. "If they were to lose on this front, social media would become a cesspool overnight. Social media companies wouldn't really be able to censor much of anything without fear of being sued for discrimination, so we'd see pornography, hate speech, and wild misinformation dominate the space from then on to the point that most people wouldn't want to engage with it anymore. In short, social media requires censorship to thrive." 

Tech analyst Bob Bilbruck, the CEO of Captjur, told Lifewire in an email interview that removing Section 230 protections on web and social media companies could shift the business models and thus shift the power players of the web today. 

"These companies wield a lot of power over the internet today, and it's probably going to shift no matter what the supreme court decides," he added. "All of these companies currently depend on advertising revenues from indirect searches to power their business models. People will communicate peer to peer without these big players being in the way, and there will be no need for an intermediary in WEB 3.0; so no matter what happens, these companies' businesses and business models are bound to change rapidly over the next five years."

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