Rewriting the Internet: Gonzalez V. Google


photo from pixabay

Jack Hebert, Staff Writer

In November 2015 the city of Paris fell victim to a deadly terrorist attack which saw three groups enact mass shootings and bombings throughout the city. These attacks killed 130 people and injured another 416. Among the dead was Nohemi Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen. The next day, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, named ISIS at the time, claimed responsibility for the attack in the form of a written statement and a video posted to YouTube. Gonzalez’s father, Jose Hernandez, filed an action against Google, alleging that Google violated the Anti-Terrorism Act by allowing ISIL videos to be published to Youtube and that Google should be held liable for the content as it was promoted via targeted recommendations on its website. In October 2022, Gonzalez V. Google was presented to the Supreme Court of the United States, and its decision will have massive implications on the internet as a whole.

Gonzalez V. Google is calling Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 into question. Section 230 states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” What this means is that online platforms cannot be held liable for the words and actions of their users. A second clause in Section 230 states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of…any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” This clause ensures that online sites can properly moderate the content posted on them with legal protection. While this may make the case seem open and shut in favor of Google, 1996 lawmakers did not count on the creation of algorithms for online recommendations. This case asks if Section 230 protects content when the content is algorithmically recommended to users.

While this case may seem contained within YouTube, the decision of this case will have massive implications on nearly every social media outlet on the internet. Nearly all, if not all, of modern social media outlets use content based algorithm recommendations, from YouTube to Twitter to search engines like Google. So what would happen if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Gonzalez? By ruling in favor of Gonzalez, this now means that Section 230 does not apply to algorithmically recommended content, and that by recommending content via an algorithm, the site is now endorsing the content and is therefore liable for whatever may be contained within that content. This would result in every social media company completely revamping or removing their algorithm systems in order to avoid impending lawsuits. This would fundamentally change the systems used to moderate content on these platforms. This would also affect the livelihoods of many content creators on these platforms. For example, on YouTube, the vast majority of content creators gained most of their subscribers via algorithmic recommendations. The loss of this system would halt channel growth, or even result in channel regression. This would result in a massive loss of jobs for online content creators with no way of replacing them in YouTube’s ecosystem.

While the loss of algorithmic content may completely change the landscape of the internet, this is just a worse case scenario. Frankly, there is no possible way of knowing what will happen if the Supreme Court rules in Gonzalez’s favor. A change of this scale is unprecedented in the history of the internet, so its results cannot be predicted. There is also a decent chance that the Supreme Court will rule in Google’s favor, as both the District Court and Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Google. There is a strong possibility that nothing will change, and Section 230 will continue to protect algorithmic content. There is also precedent for Google’s algorithm being defended in the past, bolstering Google’s case. The verdict will begin deliberation on February 21, and may change the face of the internet forever.