The Hazards of Holding YouTube Liable for Promoting Terrorism
Every day, people around the world post about 720,000 hours of new content on YouTube—500 hours of video every minute. That enormous volume of material poses challenges for the platform, which aspires to enforce rules against certain kinds of content, and for its users, who cannot hope to navigate the site without help from YouTube’s algorithms, which facilitate searches and recommend videos based on personal viewing patterns.
Those challenges underlie a case that the Supreme Court will hear next month when it will consider whether Google, which owns YouTube, can be sued for helping the terrorist group ISIS promote its message and attract followers. The case illustrates the hazards of increased civil liability for social media companies, which critics on the right and the left wrongly see as the key to better moderation practices.
Since 1996, federal law has shielded websites from most kinds of civil liability for content posted by users. Under 47 USC 230, “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Section 230 also protects “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” These two kinds of immunity aim to avoid potentially crippling litigation that would impede the availability of user-generated information and deter content moderation, making the internet as we know it impossible.
In 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that Section 230 barred a lawsuit against Google by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen who was killed in a 2015 ISIS attack while studying in Paris. The plaintiffs originally argued that Google was liable under the Anti-Terrorism Act for allowing ISIS videos to remain on YouTube and for increasing exposure t
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