Posted by Ethan Choi.
On February 21, 2023, Gonzalez v. Google was heard in the United States Supreme Court, a case that can fundamentally change the internet forever. This case considers Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which acts as a shield that “protects [companies] from being held liable for third party content posted on its service” (Feiner). However, Gonzalez argues that YouTube’s algorithm which recommends content to users falls outside the protection of Section 230. This case is very similar to Twitter v. Taamneh, where the Supreme Court will “consider whether Twitter can be held liable for aiding and abetting under the Anti-Terrorism Act” (Feiner).
The petitioner’s counsel, Eric Schnapper, defined parts of YouTube’s website such as video thumbnails and featured sections of YouTube’s home page as “a joint creation between YouTube and the third party which posted the video” (Feiner). This concerns the plaintiff as his child was killed in a 2015 ISIS terrorist attack in France. After this, ISIS “claimed responsibility” for the attack “by issuing a written statement and posting a YouTube video” (Wu). YouTube could have removed this video from the platform as it was clearly associated with the terrorist group, however Gonzalez holds Google “secondarily liable for Nohemi’s death because Google ‘aided and abetted an act of international terrorism’ through YouTube” by failing to remove the video (Wu). Google also uses recommendation algorithms to push videos to users, and the plaintiff claims that “YouTube’s recommendations actually constitute the company’s own speech” (Feiner). This would remove the protection of Section 230 from companies since the recommendation of third-party content would then be considered identical to announcements made by the company itself.
By determining whether online media platforms are liable for posted user content, Gonzalez v. Google has the potential to cause fundamental change across the internet. If Google is held liable for the damages caused by third-party content on its platform, then all modern media would likely shut down or significantly restrict user activity to protect themselves from future lawsuits based on what users post online. This widespread consequence of such a decision brings hesitancy to Supreme Court Justices on making such a significant decision. Since Section 230 has been applied consistently since its implementation, Justice Kavanaugh “pointed to the amici briefs that warned overhauling [Section 230’s] interpretation would have massive economic consequences for many businesses, as well as their workers, consumers, and investors” (Feiner). Gonzalez v. Google brings concern to how companies should monitor the content posted on their platforms, and could fundamentally change how online media operates in the future.
Ethan is a Quantitative Economics and Econometrics major in the Stillman School of Business, Seton Hall University, Class of 2026.