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Twitter, Meta back Google in key Supreme Court case

The US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Jan. 11, 2023.Nathan Howard/Bloomberg

Meta Platforms Inc., Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc. and other tech firms came to Google’s defense in a flurry of legal briefs filed Thursday in a Supreme Court case that could fundamentally change the way the internet works.

The tech companies are urging the Supreme Court justices to carefully approach Gonzalez v. Google, a case centered around whether online firms should be held liable for content they recommend to users.

A 1996 statute known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act currently protects companies from facing lawsuits over posts from their users, including comments, reviews, advertisements and more. The court is considering whether it’s time to narrow that statute, which was written before the internet became a central part of daily life.

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But the companies — even Microsoft and Yelp Inc., typically Google’s rivals — say narrowing the online speech liability shield could destroy their ability to serve up relevant recommendations to users. Reddit Inc. and Craigslist Inc. also joined in support.

A court decision undermining the statute could “strip these digital publishing decisions of long-standing, critical protection from suit — and it would do so in illogical ways that are inconsistent with how algorithms actually work,” Microsoft said in the filing.

The plaintiffs — the family of an American woman killed in a 2015 terrorist attack by ISIS — claim that Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which owns YouTube, bears responsibility for the automated process that recommends videos, such as those that could contribute to radicalization.

The court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on Feb. 21.

A number of children’s online safety advocates, such as Fairplay and Common Sense Media, backed the Gonzalez family in the case, arguing that the tech companies should face repercussions for the ways their products can harm children. And the US government partially sided with Gonzalez, arguing that in some cases social media companies should be held liable for promoting harmful speech.

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The companies focused the bulk of their filings on warnings about how a ruling could harm their products.

Meta, operator of Facebook, said the case would force online companies to remove far more content than they do now. The company said changing Section 230 “would incentivize online services to remove important, provocative, and controversial content on issues of public concern, frustrating what Congress intended to be a vibrant marketplace of diverse perspectives.”

Microsoft said its search engine Bing and online forum LinkedIn could face “devastating and destabilizing effects from a broad ruling that changes Section 230.”

In a statement, Microsoft said any modifications of Section 230 are better left to Congress to decide.

Twitter said recommendation algorithms help organize the internet’s reams of information and make the web usable and easy to understand for users.

“Section 230 ensures that websites like Twitter and YouTube can function notwithstanding the unfathomably large amounts of information they make available and the potential liability that could result from doing so,” Twitter said in its filing. The company added that it “would take an average user approximately 181 million years to download all data from the web today.”

Yelp in its filing noted that it “does not often align itself with Google,” but on this issue, “the potential consequences for consumers and online platforms are significant.” Yelp said it would struggle to provide useful reviews and recommendations to users without Section 230.

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A number of tech company trade groups, and some smaller firms including Ziprecruiter Inc. and Indeed Inc., filed comments about the importance of Section 230 to their business models.

Separately, the court on Friday will consider whether to take up two more cases related to Section 230. The cases challenge new laws in Texas and Florida that would punish tech companies for removing political speech from their platforms.

Greg Stohr assisted with this report.