Observers of the U.S. Supreme Court have long wondered if Justice Clarence Thomas would lead his colleagues to hold internet companies that post users’ content to the same liability standard as a publisher.
In a concurrence last year, Justice Thomas questioned Section 230 – a statute that provides immunity for internet companies that post user content. Justice Thomas noted that the “right to cut off speech lies most powerfully in the hands of private digital platforms. The extent to which that power matters for purposes of the First Amendment and the extent to which that power could lawfully be modified raise interesting and important questions.”
In the case heard today, Gonzalez v. Google, the family of a woman murdered by terrorists in Paris is suing Google not for a direct post, but for a YouTube algorithm that temporarily “recommended” ISIS material after the crime. In oral argument, Justice Thomas posed a more skeptical note.
“If you call information and ask for al-Baghdadi’s number and they give it to you, I don’t see how that’s aiding and abetting,” he said. Justices returned to precedents about lending libraries and bookstores not being held accountable for the content in their books.
Protect The 1st joined with former Sen. Rick Santorum in an amici brief before the Court arguing that Section 230 protections are absolutely needed to sustain a thriving online marketplace of ideas. Social media companies make a good faith effort to screen out dangerous content, but with billions of messages, perfection is impossible.
Google attorney Lisa Blatt brought this point home in a colorful way, noting that a negative ruling would “either force sites to take down any content that was remotely problematic or to allow all content no matter how vile. You’d have ‘The Truman Show’ versus a horror show.”
The tone and direction of today’s oral argument suggests that the Justices appreciate the potential for an opinion that could have negative unforeseen consequences for free speech. Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh added that the court should not “crash the digital economy.”
Protect The 1st looks forward to reading the Court’s opinion and seeing its reasoning.