SCOTUS Decision in Google Case Could Redefine Free Speech for Social Media: San Diego Professor

A local professor says this landmark case could have huge impacts on us and the tech giants

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments involving the landmark case Gonzalez v. Google which could reshape how online social media platforms handle free speech.

Section 230 was passed in 1996 as part of the Communications Decency Act, which shields internet providers and social media platforms from liability of harm when presenting content that is user-generated.

“Meaning that the internet basically, the internet, the online services and platforms, are not the ones that are generating content, they’re just posting content,” Orly Lobel, professor at the University of San Diego School of Law said.

The sentence in the 1996 Communications Decency Act is only 26 words long, but it has influenced how the biggest tech companies operate.

Gonzalez v. Google is trying to redefine the line of free speech for internet providers and social media platforms.

Lobel explains that the plaintiffs argue that "when these platforms are not posting content, but they’re actually making recommendations to users on what content they will see when the algorithm is prioritizing this recommendation of content, then they’re actually participating in this generation of content and they should be liable for it."

In October 2020, Google CEO Sundar Pichai gave his testimony before Congress saying their goal is to provide free access to information for everyone and responsible predictions for people and their data.

“The United States adopted section 230 early in the internet’s U.S. History and it has been foundational to U.S. leadership in the tech sector. It creates the freedom to create and share content, while supporting the ability of platforms and services to responsibly address. We appreciate that this committee has put thought into how platform should address content. We look forward to having these conversations,” he said.

Professor Lobel said this landmark case could have huge implications and impact all of us. She said if the justices rule in favor of the plaintiff, Gonzalez, tech companies will have to react to a new line drawing — if they’re told that they can have liability for content that’s uploaded, and if viewers are watching it or viewing it.

They could also face huge monetary implications if multiple lawsuits come forward.

“We may have a different internet if the justices impose liability where now suddenly people will be exposed to this kind of harmful content,” Lobel said.

Lobel said if Section 230 will be changed, those modifications should be made by expert agency regulators and legislators. She said the decision is now in the hands of the justices and she anticipates a ruling to come down in the next few months.

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