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Google Case Heads to Supreme Court With Powerful Internet Shield Law at Stake

Company’s defence against liability in 2015 Paris terrorist attack invokes ‘Magna Carta of the internet’

Tue, Feb 21, 2023 8:33amGrey Clock 4 min

WASHINGTON—Google goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this week to defend what is widely regarded as a pillar of the online economy—and one that is also being blamed for a proliferation of harmful content.

The law at issue, known as Section 230, gives internet platforms legal immunity for almost all third-party content hosted on their sites. A decision to limit that immunity could scramble the business models of the internet’s biggest companies—especially social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Google’s YouTube that rely heavily on recommendation algorithms.

“Unless they reaffirm the status quo, they’re going to cause a huge disruption,” said Alan Rozenshtein, a University of Minnesota law professor, at a Brookings Institution panel discussion about the case last week, where he described Section 230 as “the Magna Carta of the internet.”

There is widespread support in Congress for overhauling Section 230, but legislative efforts to do so have stalled amid partisan disagreements over the diagnosis and the cure.

Lawmakers in both parties worry that the immunity law has helped spread promotion of harmful content to vulnerable groups such as children. Democrats also say the immunity has allowed companies to ignore false and dangerous information spreading online, while Republicans say it has enabled liberal-leaning tech companies to block conservative viewpoints.

That has put the Supreme Court in position to potentially rewrite a legal cornerstone of the internet. The case, Gonzalez v. Google, was brought by the family of an American college student, Nohemi Gonzalez, who was among more than 100 people killed during the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks.

The plaintiffs allege that YouTube failed to take down some ISIS terrorist videos and even recommended them to users. They say that makes Google liable for damages under the Anti-Terrorism Act, although they haven’t presented evidence that the terrorists involved saw those videos. In essence, the plaintiffs and their allies argue that Section 230 protection shouldn’t apply to platforms’ algorithmic recommendations of harmful content.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., prevailed in lower courts by arguing that it is protected by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The law is often known as a shield because it prevents platforms from being sued for hosting harmful user posts, a measure that has been credited with paving the way for internet platforms to prosper economically.

Section 230 also shields platforms from suits for blocking objectionable content. Lawmakers at the time hoped this would encourage internet companies to block harmful content such as sexual images of children, but detractors say tech platforms have used it to censor conservative viewpoints.

Groups supporting the plaintiffs, including some child-safety advocates and conservative free-speech proponents, say the case is a long-overdue chance to right a fundamental legal imbalance that has given the online platforms an unhealthy amount of power and influence.

They say the internet ecosystem has become a breeding ground for a range of social ills, from hate speech to eating disorders, largely because of the 1996 immunity shield for online platforms.

In friend-of-the-court briefs, several allies of the plaintiffs focused on the potential harms done to children online by algorithmic recommendation systems that aim to maximize minors’ engagement.

“We’ve all woken up 20 years later and the internet’s not great,” said Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, at the recent Brookings panel. “And maybe it’s time to start thinking about how to make the internet a more civilised place.”

But the prospect that Section 230 could be scaled back by the high court has caused a wave of worry in the internet industry.

Companies and others filing friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Google include Meta Platforms Inc., owner of Instagram and Facebook, and NetChoice, a trade group that includes TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd.

Microsoft Corp. also took Google’s side, saying that platforms “inevitably will have to dramatically cut down on the content they allow on their services—even content they have no reason to believe falls afoul of any law.”

A number of conservative pro-business groups have sided with Google, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Progressive Policy Institute.

Limiting Section 230 would stifle the internet’s creative ferment by making platforms wary about recommending personalised content—the technology that has made platforms such as TikTok and Instagram so popular, said Jeff Kosseff, author of “The Twenty Six Words That Created the Internet,” a book about the Section 230 immunity law.

Also filing a brief in support of Section 230 were the sponsors of Section 230, Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) and former Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.).

A ruling against Google “would subject platforms to liability for all of their decisions to present or not present particular third-party content—the very actions that Congress intended to protect,” the two wrote.

But in a worrisome development for internet companies, the Biden administration argues that expansive readings of the federal immunity law threaten to erode other legal protections.

“An overly broad reading of [the immunity law] would undermine the enforcement of other important federal statutes by both private plaintiffs and federal agencies,” the U.S. Solicitor General wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The Supreme Court decided last fall to hear the case. Many legal scholars believe that Justice Clarence Thomas likely led the push to review the Gonzalez case, since he had previously suggested in court statements and opinions that the federal courts’ current interpretation of Section 230 could be too broad.

The case is scheduled for oral arguments before the court Tuesday, with a decision expected by the end of the high court’s term in late June or early July.

Some scholars believe that the justices could yet stop short of deciding the Gonzalez case. That is because the plaintiffs’ underlying claims under the Anti-Terrorism Act could be rejected by the justices in a similar case, Twitter Inc. v. Taamneh, which is set for arguments Wednesday.

The Twitter case was brought by family members of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in an ISIS attack at an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. Mr. Alassaf’s relatives allege that Twitter, Google and Meta provided material support to ISIS and are “the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda.”

Lawyers for Twitter, Google and Facebook have said in court filings that they have made extensive efforts to remove ISIS content and that there is no direct causal link between the websites and the Paris and Istanbul attacks.


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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