A center-left tech group funded by Google, Apple and other companies is calling on the Biden administration to come to the defense of the industry’s embattled liability shield, Section 230, in a high-stakes legal case picked up by the Supreme Court.
In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Chamber of Progress urged the Justice Department to file a brief pushing back on calls to hold platforms accountable for amplifying harmful content.
The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear Gonzalez v. Google, which will consider whether the tech giant is liable for allegedly recommending terrorist content to users through algorithms on its subsidiary video-sharing platform YouTube.
For decades, Section 230 has broadly shielded digital services from lawsuits for hosting and making “good faith” efforts to moderate objectionable content. But it’s increasingly come under attacks from advocates and public officials who say it has allowed the tech giants to escape responsibility for their decisions policing content.
Legal experts say the case, the first time the high court will directly weigh in on the law, could have sweeping ramifications for how companies handle user-generated content.
In its missive, the Chamber of Progress called on the Justice Department to file “a brief in support of the defendants,” which is Google.
The group argued that Section 230 also allows platforms to provide critical services to users, including related to medical services, and that it was crucial for the court not to limit the protections “to ensure the continued availability of lifesaving reproductive resources.”
“Should the Court curb Section 230’s protections for algorithmic curation, online services would face extreme threats of liability for promoting lifesaving reproductive health information, otherwise criminalized by state antiabortion laws,” the group wrote in a letter co-signed by Advocates for Youth, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates on sexual health issues.
The Chamber of Progress lists Google, Meta, Amazon, Apple and dozens of other tech companies as “corporate partners” on its website, but says none of the companies “have a vote on our work.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The Justice Department did not return a request for comment.
The group’s letter sets up a test for the Biden administration, which has at times both defended and attacked Section 230 protections.
As a candidate, President Biden tore into the law, saying it should be immediately “revoked” and that companies like Facebook should be submitted to “civil liability” if they cause harm.
Since becoming president, Biden has said little on the topic, but the White House has tempered his call for a full repeal and pushed instead for “fundamental reforms to Section 230.” But to date, Biden has yet to take any public action to push for changes to the law.
The Justice Department has its own history weighing in on the law.
Under former president Donald Trump, the Justice Department urged Congress to pass new legislation to open tech companies up to greater liability for a range of harmful content, including terrorist content and child sexual abuse material. The efforts, which also targeted claims of “censorship” by Silicon Valley, was panned by top Democrats as overbroad.
But under Biden, the Justice Department has at times waded into cases in defense of Section 230, including to affirm the constitutionality of the law in a lawsuit filed by Trump against Twitter for permanently banning his account. (Twitter, now under new ownership, has reinstated Trump’s account.)
It’s unclear, however, if the Justice Department will take sides in Gonzalez v. Google, which stems from a lawsuit filed by the family of a student killed during the 2015 Islamic State terrorist attack in Paris alleging YouTube “aided and abetted” the extremist group online.
The letter is the latest instance of the Chamber of Progress challenging the Justice Department to take steps aimed at protecting users after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
In July, the group sent a letter warning the Justice Department that it was undermining digital privacy protections and putting those who seek abortion at risk through its legal arguments, as we reported. The trade group argued the precedent could be seized by prosecutors in red states to scoop up user data and target abortions.
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