In win for Google, Supreme Court sidesteps question some feared could break the internet

 WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday dodged a thorny debate over whether Big Tech companies such as Google can be sued for their recommendations in a case some experts warned could fundamentally change the way the internet works.   

At issue in Gonzalez v. Google was a controversial law known as Section 230, which has been widely interpreted as shielding websites from lawsuits for user-generated content. The question for the court was whether recommendations – such as a suggestion for the next video to watch on YouTube – are covered under that law. By leaving Section 230 in place, the court handed the social media firms a major win.

The bottom line was that the decisions will likely make it harder for Americans to sue tech companies for abetting in terrorism but the high court left for another day the broader questions about Section 230.

Because the court ruled the families were unable to bring a valid lawsuit under the under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which generally allows lawsuits for aiding and abetting terrorism, the court said it didn't have to address the questions about Section 230 and it dispense with the separate case in a brief, unsigned opinion.

“Countless companies, scholars, content creators and civil society organizations who joined with us in this case will be reassured by this result," Halimah DeLaine Prado, Google's general counsel, said in a statement. "We'll continue our work to safeguard free expression online, combat harmful content, and support businesses and creators who benefit from the internet.”

The case against Google was filed by the family of a 23-year-old American killed in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. The other dispute involving a Jordanian man killed in an ISIS attack in Istanbul in 2017. His relatives, who are U.S. citizens, sued Twitter, Google, and Facebook.

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Enacted at a time when Americans were still dialing into the internet, the law says " services" can't be treated as publishers for providing content posted by others. In other words, Twitter can't be sued for a libelous tweet posted by a user. The law also shields Big Tech from liability for moderating content.    

Section 230 drew intense criticism from former President Donald Trump over accusations that social media companies throttled conservative views. But many Democrats agree, for different reasons, that the law needs an update. 

During oral arguments in February, it was clear that justices from both ends of the ideological spectrum seemed concerned about a sweeping decision. The tech firms had argued that if they were held liable for content recommendations it could fundamentally change the way search engines, online shopping and other parts of the internet work.    

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