The Biden administration argued to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday that social media giants like Google could in some instances have responsibility for user content, adopting a stance that could potentially undermine a federal law shielding companies from liability.
Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice made their argument in the high profile lawsuit filed by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American citizen killed in 2015 when Islamist militants opened fire on the Paris bistro where she was eating.
The family argued that Google was in part liable for Gonzalez’ death because YouTube, which is owned by the tech giant, essentially recommended videos by the Islamic State group to some users through its algorithms. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O).
The case reached the Supreme Court after the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Google, saying they were protected from such claims because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230 holds that social media companies cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by other users.
The law has been sharply criticised across the political spectrum. Democrats claim it gives social media companies a pass for spreading hate speech and misinformation.
Republicans say it allows censorship of voices on the right and other politically unpopular opinions, pointing to decisions by Facebook and Twitter to ban dissemination of a New York Post article about the son of then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s adult son, Hunter, in October 2020.
The Biden administration, in its filing to the Supreme Court, did not argue that Google should be held liable in the Gonzalez case and voiced strong support for most of Section 230’s protections of social media companies.
But the DOJ lawyers said that algorithms used by YouTube and other providers should be subject to a different kind of scrutiny. They called for the Supreme Court to return the case to the 9th Circuit for further review.
Attorneys for Google could not be reached for comment on Wednesday night.