The US Supreme Court is considering two cases – Gonzalez vs Google and Twitter vs Taamneh – which aim to implicate these two technologies in the Paris (2015) and Istanbul (2017) attacks. If any of the demands are successful, we could be facing the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it. But such an outcome is highly unlikely, and that is precisely where the crux of the matter lies.
The first case clearly illustrates the complexity of the implications of both processes: Nohemi Gonzalez’s family accuses YouTube (owned by Google) of having collaborated in the radicalization of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, for, based on their consumption, having continually suggested terrorist content. The prosecution considers that the algorithmic system of recommendations is determined by the company and, for that reason, YouTube must be penalized for the cumulative effects produced by its curation. That is, the prosecution argues that the recommendation system is not covered by the law that governs the Internet, the famous section 230, and which exempts digital intermediaries from any responsibility for the content of their users.
This request hits the nerve center of these companies’ business model: the algorithms built by the platforms track usage patterns and generate metrics that deliver content to users, but also users to advertisers. Over time, platforms have developed formulas for capturing and retaining people’s attention that exploit structural values of democratic societies: privacy (user data) and freedom of expression. Anger generates engagement in an ecosystem where industries of propaganda and disinformation, denialism and radicalism flourish.
We do not know what the Supreme Court will decide, but the question, as a vent, asked by Judge Kagan on the day of presentation of the first arguments illustrates well the exception regime in which social platforms operate: (in a free translation) “All industries have to internalize the costs of their conduct. Why should the technology industry be an exception?”
These companies have known how to profit from both party polarization (with one side saying that there is moderation online the most and the other defending the opposite), such as the North American political model, in which the lobbying shapes legislation. The sector led by big five (Amazon, Meta, Apple, Microsoft, Google) is what invests the most millions in Washington, while also exploiting a cultural context that associates any tampering with section 230 with an attack on free speech.
While it is obvious that work on content moderation must continue, focusing the discussion here will only help further divide American society. This is one of those debates with no end in sight, and with an enormous potential to sharpen misunderstandings and misunderstandings.
On the other hand, while this is where attention is focused, ignorance about these companies will continue: how to know if there is a coincidence between their discourse and practice, if almost nothing is known about the way they organize the communicative flow and promote certain contents and groups on your platforms? In the meantime, the asymmetry is perpetuated: its opacity grows in direct proportion to our transparency. These companies hold the main environments in which our data is collected and which result in predictive analyzes of behavior and modeling of choices in the area of consumption, but also politics.
And we go back to the beginning: The beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it, being debated in the American public space, produces good conversations, but the decisions of the Supreme Court should not lead to such an outcome. As long as they don’t change the laws antitrust, nor produce legislation on privacy and data surveillance, changes with effective implications in the platforms’ business model, nothing structural will happen.
It is that, contrary to what is often suggested, these companies did not accumulate power in the absence of laws, but in the ability to paralyze a legal framework that, therefore, became obsolete: the pre-algorithmic legislation in force in this post-international era. algorithmic protection protects these companies to the same extent that it does not protect democracies.