What To Know: The Supreme Court Hears Cases That Could Transform The Internet

February 21, 2023

The Supreme Court now really is in a moment where it could dramatically limit the diversity of speech that the internet enables.

Founding director of the MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative, Daniel Weitzner, who helped draft the provision, Section 230, which is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court this week. The outcomes of the cases have the potential to transform the internet.

What Is Section 230? A rule passed nearly 30 years ago – before the creation of many modern social media platforms – Section 230 has protected social media platforms such as Google, YouTube and Instagram from liability for content shared by users on its sites. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg explains that the provision treats social media platforms as “passive conveyor belts of information, not publishers or speakers.”

When was Section 230 created? The internet’s “birthday” is considered to be in 1983, however, it did not become available for public use until the early 1990s. Section 230 was created during these early years of the internet, stemming from a case which found a message-board site liable for a comment posted on its platform by a third-party user. The Washington Post explains, “After the decision, Congress stepped in to ensure the judgement did not stifle the innovation on the fledgling internet. The result was Section 230.”

The Cases:

  • Arguments in Gonzales v. Google LLC were heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday. This case involves the November 2015 Paris attacks in which ISIS carried out attacks across the country, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. The plaintiffs are parents of a 23-year-old woman who was killed in the attacks, and contend that YouTube parent company Google should be held liable for recommending ISIS content on its platform. Google strongly denies the accusations, and further argues, “Recommendation algorithms are what make it possible to find needles in humanity’s largest haystack. Given that virtually everyone depends on tailored online results, Section 230 is the Atlas propping up the modern internet …” Read more about Tuesday’s arguments here.
  • On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh case. The plaintiffs – relatives of a man killed in an attack in Turkey in which a gunman affiliated with the Islamic State killed 39 people – filed suit against internet service providers and platforms Twitter, Google, and Facebook, alleging they aided and abetted the Islamic State’s growth through allowing the group to share content and use its platforms for messaging, recruitment, etc.

Why It Matters: The outcomes of these cases have the potential to significantly alter the way the modern internet functions, as well as online speech. Tuesday was the first time the Supreme Court heard a case dealing with Section 230, and “highlighted the tension between technology policy fashioned a generation ago and the reach of today’s social media, numbering billions of posts each day” (The Associated Press).

Supreme Court showdown for Google, Twitter and the social media world (NPR)

Supreme Court hears a case that could transform the internet (The Washington Post)

UW law professor discusses tech company liability cases before US Supreme Court (University of Washington)

Listen: Gonzales v. Google Oral Argument (C-SPAN)

Listen: Twitter, Inc. v. Taamneh Oral Argument (C-SPAN)

by Jenna Lee,