Supreme Court examines Google’s liability for YouTube’s recommendation algorithms

02/21/2023 By Ashlyn Wang

The Supreme Court justices heard arguments for “Gonzalez v. Google” on Tuesday, a lawsuit filed by the family of an American college student who was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. The family accused Google’s YouTube of helping extremists spread their message and displaying ISIS videos to users.

Photo credit: Carol Rangel/WEBN

By challenging Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law protecting big tech companies from lawsuits related to user-posted content on their sites, the case marks the court’s first examination of the law since its adoption in the early internet age in 1996.

Reynaldo Gonzalez brought the lawsuit in 2016. His daughter, Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old California college student, was among the 130 victims in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. Gonzalez sued YouTube for violating the Anti-Terrorism Act by recommending ISIS videos to targeted viewers who indicated an interest in receiving the content.

Prior to being appealed to the Supreme Court, the case was ruled in favor of Google by a federal appeals court in 2022, which held that the tech giant was protected by Section 230. In their statements to the Supreme Court, the lawyer representing the Gonzalez family said the “core of Google’s search engine business,” which delivers URLs offered by third parties, should not be protected from liability because it does not belong to the definition of “third-party created information.” On the defendant’s side, Google’s lawyer contended the allegations made by the Gonzalez family against YouTube are precluded by Section 230.

“YouTube provides a website that publishes third-party videos using algorithms to sort and list related videos that may interest viewers so that they do not confront a morass of billions of unsorted videos,” stated the lawyer.

The oral arguments lasted more than two and a half hours, ending with the justices expressing caution about changing the law. The justices seemed “concerned about upending the internet in their interpretation of a 1996 law,” according to The Associated Press. Another important tech lawsuit, “Twitter v. Taamneh,” filed by the family of a terror attack victim in Istanbul in 2017 against tech giant Twitter, Google, and Facebook, is scheduled for argument on Wednesday.