How the Supreme Court Could Break the Internet as We Know It

How the Supreme Court Could Break the Internet as We Know It

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the major stories and debates of the day.

What is happening

The Supreme Court announced this week that it would take up a pair of cases that could fundamentally alter the legal foundations of the internet.

Both cases ask judges to consider how far protections that protect websites and social media companies from legal liability for what users post on their platforms should go. These protections were created in a part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 known as Section 230 – a provision that was called Section 230 did two crucial things. It established that companies operating websites or social media platforms could not be held legally responsible if their users posted content that broke the law. It also granted them the right to maintain, edit, and remove User Content as they see fit.

For the past 26 years, Section 230 has underpinned almost everything about how the Internet works. Experts widely agree that Big Tech giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter wouldn’t exist in their current guises without the legal armor they receive from Section 230.

In recent years, however, Section 230 has come under intense criticism from members of both political parties, albeit for different reasons. Many Republicans say it allows Big Tech companies to suppress conservative viewpoints and censor important right-wing voices — including former President Donald Trump, who is currently banned from Facebook and Twitter. Democrats and some left-wing activists argue that Section 230 means social media companies face no consequences for allowing misinformation, violent rhetoric and harassment on their platforms. A number of bills have been introduced to change Section 230, but the political division over what the solution should look like means that none of these bills have come close to being passed.

Neither of the two cases before the Supreme Court fits one side of this partisan debate. Both relate to lawsuits brought by family members of people killed in terror attacks who believe tech companies — , — should be held accountable for failing to stop extremist groups from operating on their platforms.

Why there is debate

Despite all the complaints about Section 230, there’s still a lot of concern about how a ruling that significantly alters, if not eliminates, its protections would change the online world we so depend on today.

Many communications law experts fear a decision to remove Section 230 could create chaos in one of the world’s most important industries, as companies try to respond quickly to a sudden and drastic change in the legal landscape. . They argue that because few companies would be able to bear the new financial risk of lawsuits for user-generated posts, the loci of free speech online would quickly erode, if not disappear. Other sites might go in the opposite direction and avoid moderation altogether, creating space for their platforms to turn into cesspools of objectionable content.

Some experts say even smaller changes could disrupt the myriad algorithms and automated systems that keep much of the internet running efficiently.

But others argue that it’s high time for new laws to govern online speech, and with Congress unable to pass anything sensible, the courts present the best opportunity to create them. Some conservatives hope the upcoming ruling will make Big Tech less willing to censor right-wing content. Some lawyers say the risk of a decision that “breaks the internet” is overstated. They say the court is much more likely to issue a ruling that narrowly changes the law in a way that requires companies to accept greater liability for things like content recommendations, promotions and search results, but otherwise protects them from user harm.

And after

Rulings in those two cases, which are expected next year, may not be the only time the court will weigh in on Section 230 this term. Judges have also been asked to consider cases involving recently passed laws in Texas and Florida that prohibit social media companies from removing posts based on political ideology.


The Fundamental Structure of the Internet Could Change Radically

“Its rulings could be the start of a new reality on the internet, one where platforms are much more careful about what content they decide to deliver to billions of people every day. Alternatively, the court could also create a situation in which tech companies have little power to moderate what users post, undoing years of efforts to limit the reach of misinformation, abuse and hate speech.The result could render parts of the internet unrecognizable because some voices become louder or quieter and information travels in different ways.—David Ingram,

Even a narrow decision would blur online life

“It’s not that the Supreme Court is supposed to issue an opinion saying that ‘platforms are fully liable for everything on them, immediately and irrevocably’ or anything like that. Small changes make a big difference, and if the court simply decides that Section 230 doesn’t protect Google in this case, every lawyer in the country would be rushing to apply this new definition of the law to policies, behaviors, features, everything.—Devin Coldwey,

Subtle changes are needed to update laws to adapt to the modern internet

“What we’re trying to do is balance the needs of platforms to not be held immediately responsible for what’s posted on their platform and also provide platforms with the right incentives to police their site against known harmful content. The question is whether we struck the right balance in 1996, and I think you could make a very good point that we might want to rebalance that. — Michael Smith, Information Technology Researcher, for

The average user probably won’t see much change

“I don’t think it would change much, actually. Platforms already have a huge ability to control how content is promoted. They will have to make wiser decisions and be held accountable for those decisions. — Adam Candeub, communications law expert, to

Current laws give Big Tech far too much leeway to censor conservative views

“Big Tech’s censorship of conservative voices is well documented. Some on Capitol Hill have gone so far as to claim that Big Tech practically “owns” the government — a claim that seems increasingly substantiated given the government’s documented efforts to control messaging during the pandemic and on politically charged stories. embarrassing. —Sarah Parshall Perry,

Courts could soon render the internet completely unusable

“It’s entirely possible that next year the Supreme Court will rule that (1) websites are liable for not removing certain content (in both of these cases) and (2) websites can be compelled to stream all the content. It will be fun to figure out how to make this all work. However, some of us will probably have to do this when new to the internet, as it’s unclear how the internet will actually work at this point. —Mike Masnick ,

Conservatives would face the biggest consequences if Section 230 is defeated

“If a company like Twitter suddenly finds that it is being held responsible for every post on its site, the company says its options would be limited to either retreating entirely or performing extreme content vetting and moderation, although more than what is already happening. This is of course not exactly what the Conservatives want. —Kyle Barr,

Everyone will benefit from having clearly defined rules about what tech companies can and cannot do.

“The two cases, taken together, will give the Court an opportunity to clarify ground rules for when platforms can be sued for doing too little to censor content, or too much to promote it.” —Dan McLaughlin,

Congress’ failure to pass sensible reforms left the fate of the internet in the hands of the Supreme Court

“If the United States had a more vibrant Congress, lawmakers could consider how to maintain the economic and social benefits of online algorithms, while preventing them from spreading ISIS recruitment videos and racist conspiracies. , and potentially drafting a law that strikes the appropriate balance. But litigants go to court with the laws we have, not the laws we might want.” — Ian Millhiser,

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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