By Andrew Chung and John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday began hearing arguments in a major case that could weaken a legal shield that protects internet companies from a wide array of lawsuits in a dispute involving YouTube and the family of an American student fatally shot in a 2015 rampage by Islamist militants in Paris.
The justices were considering an appeal by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student at California State University, Long Beach who was studying in France, of a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against Google LLC-owned YouTube. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet Inc.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied on a federal law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects internet companies from liability for content posted by their users. This case marks the first time the Supreme Court will examine the scope of Section 230.
The family claimed that YouTube, through its computer algorithms, unlawfully recommended videos by the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks that killed 130 people, to certain users. The recommendations helped spread Islamic State’s message and recruit jihadist fighters, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit was brought under the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, a federal law that lets Americans recover damages related to “an act of international terrorism.”
Google and its supporters have said a win for the plaintiffs could prompt a flood of litigation against platforms and upend how the internet works. Many websites and social media companies use similar technology to give users relevant content such as job listings, search engine results, songs and movies.
The case is a threat to free speech, they added, because it could force platforms to suppress anything that could be considered remotely controversial.
Section 230 protects “interactive computer services” by ensuring they cannot be treated as the “publisher or speaker” of information provided by users. Legal experts note that companies could employ other legal defenses if Section 230 protections are eroded.
Critics of the law have said it too often prevents platforms from being held accountable for real-world harms. Many liberals have condemned misinformation and hate speech on social media. Many conservatives have said voices on the right are censored by social media companies under the guise of content moderation.
President Joe Biden’s administration has called for Section 230 to be reformed and has asked the Supreme Court to revive the lawsuit by Nohemi Gonzalez’s family, including her mother Beatriz Gonzalez and stepfather Jose Hernandez, accusing YouTube of providing “material support” to Islamic State.
The 9th Circuit in 2021 ruled that the lawsuit was barred by Section 230 because it was seeking to hold Google accountable for the Islamic State’s content, and its algorithms did not treat the group’s content differently than any other user-created content.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)