WASHINGTON — Islamic State gunmen killed American college student Nohemi Gonzalez as she sat with friends in a Paris bistro in 2015, one of several attacks on a Friday night in the French capital that left 130 people dead.
Her family’s lawsuit claiming YouTube’s recommendations helped the Islamic State group’s recruitment is at the center of a closely watched Supreme Court case being argued Tuesday about how broadly a law written in 1996 shields tech companies from liability. The law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is credited with helping create today’s internet.
A related case, set for arguments Wednesday, involves a terrorist attack at a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2017 that killed 39 people and prompted a suit against Twitter, Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube.
The tech industry is facing criticism from the left for not doing enough to remove harmful content from the internet and from the right for censoring conservative speech. Now, the high court is poised to take its first hard look at online legal protections.
A win for Gonzalez’s family could wreak havoc on the internet, say Google and its many allies. Yelp, Reddit, Microsoft, Craigslist, Twitter and Facebook are among the companies warning that searches for jobs, restaurants and merchandise could be restricted if those social media platforms had to worry about being sued over the recommendations they provide and their users want.
“Section 230 underpins a lot of aspects of the open internet,” said Neal Mohan, who was just named senior vice president and head of YouTube.
Gonzalez’s family, partially backed by the Biden administration, argues that lower courts’ industry-friendly interpretation of the law has made it too difficult to hold Big Tech companies accountable. Freed from the prospect of being sued, companies have no incentive to act responsibly, critics say.
They are urging the court to say that companies can be sued in some instances.
Beatriz Gonzalez, Nohemi’s mother, said she barely uses the internet, but hopes the case results in it becoming harder for extremist groups to access social media.
“I don’t know much about social media or these ISIS organizations. I don’t know nothing about politics. But what I know is that my daughter is not going to vanish just like that,” Gonzalez said in an interview from her home in Roswell, New Mexico.
The Gonzalez family alleges that YouTube aided and abetted IS by recommending the group’s videos to viewers most likely to be interested in them, in violation of the federal Anti-Terrorism Act.
But nothing in the suit links the attackers who killed Gonzalez to videos on YouTube, and the lack of a connection could make it hard to prove the company did anything wrong.
If the justices would avoid the hard questions posed by the case, they could focus on Wednesday’s arguments involving the attack in Istanbul. The only issue is whether the suit can go forward under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
A ruling for the companies in that case, where the allegations are very similar to those made by the Gonzalez family, would end the lawsuit over the Paris attacks, too.
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