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Lord, we pray for wisdom for judicial branch leaders as they evaluate ways to ensure freedom of speech for all in this digital era.
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Analysis. Big Tech had a big week in the U.S. Supreme Court. In two back-to-back days of cases justices assessed the amount of responsibility major internet companies should have for content propagated on their platforms. And one of those lawsuits, which names Google specifically, is challenging the breadth of Big Tech’s decades-old liability shield known as Section 230. Depending on how the court rules, this case could reshape the internet landscape.

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The catalyst for Gonzalez v. Google was the death of a 23-year-old American woman killed during a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. The family of Nohemi Gonzalez believes Google-owned YouTube aided the terrorists by recommending ISIS videos through its algorithms. Google, however, asserts that its longtime statutory shield protects its video recommendations and restricting that liability defense would damage the internet as we know it.

It is true that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was enacted in the early days of the internet, is a cornerstone law that has played a major role in allowing the development of today’s online ecosystem. It essentially ensures that web users are responsible for their own speech online. In other words, you — not IFA — are responsible for what you post in the comments section below. Section 230 protects platforms large and small from being sued to death for user engagement — a hallmark of the free and open internet. It also provides legal cover for “Good Samaritan” efforts to remove offensive content.

Google’s attorney told the justices this week tampering with that shield could lead to internet platforms leaving all content up, which she said “just defeats the whole point, and you basically have the internet of filth, violence, hate speech, and everything else that’s not attractive.” Alternatively, platforms would take down anything even remotely objectionable to anyone and “you have the Truman Show versus a horror show.”

Now this liability protection is important, but more and more voices across the ideological spectrum believe it is being abused by ubiquitous tech giants. Indeed, both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have been critical of it (for different reasons), as have other political leaders. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), for example, has called the shield  “a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys.” He also weighed in directly on the pending case with a legal brief that argued Google should be held accountable for its content recommendations.

“Google knows it has illegal content on its platforms, but they constantly point to Section 230 as their get-out-of-jail-free card. Enough,” Hawley said in a press statement accompanying his brief.

Hawley added that the high court could now take action to hold tech companies accountable. It could “restore the law’s original meaning and correct years of bad precedent.”

Among other legislators to weigh in on the Google case was Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is also the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee. His brief with colleagues argues for a more narrow interpretation of Section 230, but he actually went further this month using his committee rank to launch an investigation into Facebook, Google, Twitter, and TikTok. Cruz is particularly concerned with the addictive risks of platform recommendations, as well as censorship by the companies.

“Recommendation systems play an increasingly ubiquitous role in selecting content for individual consumption, including by promoting some content… and downranking or filtering disfavored content and accounts,” he said in a letter to the platforms.

“Taken as a whole, these systems have an outsized impact — whether positive or negative — on the reach of content and accounts and, by extension, speech,” Cruz added.

Of course, just as there is ideological diversity in the skepticism about Big Tech’s use of Section 230, these is similar diversity among those wary of touching the law. For example, the progressive ACLU is among groups that worry “the internet will be a far less hospitable place for human creativity, education, politics, and collaboration” if something were to happen to Section 230. In addition, former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), long a conservative champion, also weighed in with the Supreme Court and told the justices that paring back Section 230 “would cripple the free speech and association that the internet currently fosters.”

For their part, the justices seem cautious about overstepping on this complicated matter. Google did face tough questions. For example, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson emphasized her understanding that Section 230 aimed to protect the removal of offensive content rather than the recommendation of content. Also, Chief Justice John Roberts pressed on algorithmic targeting, and Justices Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett asked about types of content. But a telling comment may have come from Justice Elena Kagan.

“[E]very other industry has to internalize the costs of its conduct. Why is it that the tech industry gets a pass? A little bit unclear,” Kagan said. “On the other hand, I mean, we’re a court. We really don’t know about these things. You know, these are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet.”

The second Big Tech case this week — Twitter v. Taamneh — also centers on liability of social media for aiding terrorists. That relies on an antiterrorism law rather than Section 230, so it’s possible the court could punt on the Section 230 question depending on how they rule in the Twitter case.

Still, concerns with Big Tech hiding behind Section 230 are not going to disappear. And if Big Tech advocates pursue battles versus remedies, the debate over Section 230 is likely to continue escalating. In that case, our leaders will need your prayers for much wisdom to get this important area of law right.

How are you praying about big tech and these two cases? Share your prayers and scriptures below.

Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.s public policy arena. Photo Credit: Canva.

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Grant Windholz
February 25, 2023

Yes, wisdom through Jesus Christ is the only way for the Judicial Branch and the U.S. Constitution, fighting through spiritual war-ware!

February 25, 2023

What a slippery slope this is. Only GOD sees all, knows all, and can advise his Supreme Council.
Let us pray they have ears to hear.🙏


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