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The Supreme Court appears concerned that it might destroy the internet

It's unlikely that the justices will take down popular websites like Google, Twitter, or YouTube.

The Supreme Court appeared to be aware of the dangers of proceeding in a way that might potentially destroy much of the internet as oral arguments in a case were heard on Tuesday.

The Gonzalez v. Google case, which was heard today, may expose social media networks and even search engines to devastating consequences, potentially forcing major businesses to change their business strategies or even shut down.

Yet, the majority of the justices seemed sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of obliterating the modern internet's functioning that they are likely to find a means to stop that outcome. The judges are "not the nine greatest experts on the internet," as Justice Elena Kagan cautioned during the Gonzalez debate. Hence, it makes sense for them to approach a case that could significantly alter how core websites function in a modest manner.

Gonzalez focuses on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, probably the most significant legal rule in internet history. According to Section 230, a "interactive computer service" is not held responsible for "any information given by another information content provider" that appears on the service's website.

Hence, for instance, if a tweet is published that unlawfully libels another person, the tweet's author may be held liable for defamation, but Twitter cannot be.

But by the norms of the internet, Section 230 is also a very old legislation. The plaintiffs in Gonzalez essentially contend that Section 230 does not protect a website's decision to use algorithms to sort through all of the content published on that website and to use those algorithms to recommend certain content to certain users, despite the fact that it protects websites like YouTube and Facebook's ability to publish third-party content without being held liable if that content is illegal.

According to this view, Twitter would lose its legal immunity if its algorithm causes users who might not have otherwise seen that tweet to see it, even though it cannot be held accountable simply for allowing a user to publish a defamatory tweet.

This legal theory has astonishing possible outcomes. The algorithms that allow users to browse among the billions of movies, tweets, and other pieces of content produced on Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook may need to be removed if these websites risk being held accountable for any content that is presented to users by one of their algorithms.

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Elena Kagan Gonzalez Google Supreme Court


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