Supreme Court to Weigh if YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Are Liable for Users’ Content

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether social-media platforms can be held liable for terrorist propaganda uploaded by users, opening a new challenge to the broad legal immunity provided to internet companies by the law known as Section 230.

The court on Monday took up a set of cases in which families of terrorism victims allege Twitter, Facebook and YouTube bear some responsibility for attacks by Islamic State, based on content posted on those sites.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has come under intense scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years, but this is the first time the Supreme Court has moved to weigh in on the foundational internet law.

The eventual ruling could have repercussions for businesses and internet users worldwide, said Anupam Chander, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

At issue are the “algorithmic processes for information dissemination that all internet platforms use,” Mr. Chander said.

The court agreed to take up Gonzalez v. Google, an appeal by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a young woman killed in an ISIS attack in Paris in 2015. Ms. Gonzalez’s family alleges YouTube, a subsidiary of Google owner Alphabet Inc., aided ISIS by recommending the terrorist group’s videos to users.

The court also agreed to hear a similar appeal, Twitter Inc. v. Taamneh, brought by family members of Nawras Alassaf, who was killed in an ISIS attack at an Istanbul nightclub in 2017. Mr. Alassaf’s relatives allege Twitter, Google and Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc. all provided material support to ISIS and are “the vehicle of choice in spreading propaganda.”

Lawyers for Google, Twitter and Facebook have said in court filings that they have made extensive efforts to remove ISIS content and that there is no direct causal link between the websites and the Paris and Istanbul attacks.

. . . .

Section 230 helped build the modern-day internet. The statute acts as a shield, saying that internet companies generally aren’t liable for harmful content user posts on their sites. Section 230 also allows companies to remove content they deem objectionable without liability, as long as they act in good faith.

In the Gonzalez case, the plaintiffs alleged Google knowingly allowed its algorithms to recommend and target ISIS recruitment videos to users, allowing the group to spread its message.

The case raises the question of whether Section 230 grants immunity for recommendations made by algorithms or if it only applies to editorial decisions—like removing content—made by representatives of internet companies.

“[W]hether Section 230 applies to these algorithm-generated recommendations is of enormous practical importance,” the family argued in their petition to the high court. “Interactive computer services constantly direct such recommendations, in one form or another, at virtually every adult and child in the United States who uses social media.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Free Speech

From The Wall Street Journal:

A typical account of free-speech history will begin with John Milton’s 1644 attack on censorship, “Areopagitica.” To those who feared the publication of false and dangerous doctrines, Milton said, in essence, buck up: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” A typical account will then note that Milton went on to write “Paradise Lost”: A great poet and a great defense of free speech make an appealing pair. What probably won’t be mentioned is that Milton, who wrote “Areopagitica” early in the English Civil War, served the victors as, among other things, a censor and propagandist. That’s not so appealing, particularly if we know that other, forgotten, champions of free speech, like the radical democrat John Lilburne, were imprisoned under the regime Milton supported.

In “Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media,” Jacob Mchangama delivers the bad news about Milton. Indeed, a recurring theme in this expansive, atypical history is “Milton’s Curse,” a disease that afflicts defenders of free speech when they are exposed to power. In his “Philosophical Dictionary” (1764), Voltaire advised: “Does a book displease you? Refute it.” But Voltaire, Mr. Mchangama observes, “tried to game the system of French censorship in order to advance his own writings and suppress those of his foes.” Robespierre, who launched the Terror in 1793, had been, in the early days of the French Revolution, among the “biggest advocates of free speech.”

Mr. Mchangama, who directs a Copenhagen-based human-rights think tank, is not out to cut free-speech warriors down. He is himself such a warrior, out to warn civilians about “free speech entropy,” of which Milton’s Curse is only one aspect. When free speech advances, as he shows, rulers and other elites often grow alarmed and conclude that it has gone “too far.” Long before governments and thinkers panicked about the spread of noxious ideas via social media, they panicked over the spread of noxious ideas via the printing press. Erasmus, who as a scholar had more reason than most to be grateful for the availability of books, lamented in 1508 the “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libellous, mad, impious and subversive ideas” disseminated by certain printers. Such “rascals,” he argued, should be “shown by the laws that a big stick awaits them.”

There will always be reasons to want to shut some people up, as Mr. Mchangama shows. The printing press in its early days “churned out a steady stream of virulent political and religious propaganda, hate speech, obscene cartoons, and treatises on witchcraft.” Social media are lighter on witchcraft but no less a godsend to dealers in poison and smut. “Free Speech” is addressed especially to the well-meaning among would-be censors. They should know how rarely censorship goes as planned. Consider Russia, which early in the 19th century organized more than a dozen censorship units that “placed almost comically strict limits on what could be published and imported.” A cookbook that referred to “free air” in an oven was deemed subversive, but Marx’s “Capital,” later in the century, slipped the czar’s net. Hardly anyone, the censors reasoned, would read such a “colossal mass of abstruse, somewhat obscure politico-economic argumentation.”

Mr. Mchangama allows us a good laugh at the beleaguered 16th-century censor who, crushed by “the sheer volume of printed material flooding Christendom,” moans: “What we need is a halt to printing.” But we don’t laugh for long, because Mr. Mchangama confronts us with chillingly effective censorship regimes, including the one that, in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s estimation, ensured that “there was no public opinion in the Soviet Union.” Of the gulags, he said, “no news could leak out,” and rumors couldn’t get far. Of course, long before the rise of the Soviet Union, autocrats in many countries had figured out how to run a high-volume censorship operation. They farmed out responsibility to publishers, printers and editors who “self-censored for fear of punishment.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

A history of free expression charts its seesawing progress

From The Economist:

A global firestorm erupted in 2005 after the publication in a Danish newspaper of 12 provocative cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Jacob Mchangama, a Dane and then a young lawyer, was dismayed. In the Muslim world he watched states that rarely allowed protest of any kind encourage violent demonstrations. Those governments also redoubled their diplomatic efforts to define “defamation of religions” as a human-rights violation that should be banned everywhere.

He found the response elsewhere even more alarming. Respectable people across the Western world blamed the cartoonist and his editors, not the repressive forces that drove the newspaper staff into hiding. This was not what Mr Mchangama, the product of a confidently secular Nordic democracy, had expected.

As his new book recalls, free expression was suffering setbacks on other fronts, too. In the late 1990s, when he was a student, the internet presaged a glorious era of liberty for people who otherwise lacked money or power to speak and organise. The victory in 2008 of Barack Obama, an erstwhile outsider, marked a high point of those expectations. Even then, though, digital freedom was already in retreat. Authoritarian regimes proved adept at exploiting and policing social media for their own malign ends. Western governments were often heavy-handed in their regulation of extremist discourse. And the gigantic power wielded by a few tech companies was troubling, regardless of how they used it.

All this led Mr Mchangama (whose paternal forebears came from the Comoro Islands) to apply his legal mind to supporting intellectual liberty: by podcasting and founding a think-tank, and by studying free expression’s fluctuating fortunes over the past 25 centuries. His conclusions, presented in a crisp and confident march through Western history, are sobering.

His view that freedom of speech is under threat from many directions—and, politically, from both right and left—is not original. More distinctive is his determination to show the ebb and flow of liberty as a dynamic process, under way at least since the era of ancient Greece. Accordingly, stringent repression of thought and speech becomes self-defeating and stimulates brave opponents. But great bursts of freedom also prove finite.

For example, the intellectual energy unleashed by the printing press and the Protestant Reformation was dissipated in waves of sectarian wars and mutual persecution. After the shock of the American and French revolutions, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, Britain’s establishment became severely repressive in the early 19th century. But a countervailing movement of liberal thought and debate, carried along by technological and social change, proved more powerful.

Yet that trend, too, had its limits and its hypocrisies. John Stuart Mill was a brilliant Victorian advocate of intellectual freedom, but he participated in, and defended, the colonial administration of India. And as Britain became more open and tolerant at home, it curbed liberty of expression in its overseas possessions, especially amid the rise of independence movements.

The effects of colonial repression continued to be felt long after colonialism ended, as the book shows. Laws dating from the British Empire have been used to stifle dissent in modern India, and recently in Hong Kong. Measures that strangle freedom can easily outlive the conditions that engendered them—as, luckily, can laws and constitutions that entrench liberty. In America, where the possibility of frank, productive debate seems threatened by cultural warfare, the constitution’s First Amendment sets a limit on any faction’s ability to muzzle its opponents.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Students Called Radicals by Superintendent Fundraise for Freedom to Read

From Book Riot:

On January 25th, Granbury Independent School District in Texas pulled 100 books for review based on Matt Krause’s list of 850 books he wants banned from school libraries. Five books were pulled from shelves. Students spoke out at the board meeting, 

On January 25th, Granbury Independent School District in Texas pulled 100 books for review based on Matt Krause’s list of 850 books he wants banned from school libraries. Five books were pulled from shelves. Students spoke out at the board meeting, saying,

We want to learn about things that may not be the prettiest or the most comfortable, but we as students are entitled to complete knowledge…

In response, superintendent of the district Jeremy Glenn said,

We want to learn about things that may not be the prettiest or the most comfortable, but we as students are entitled to complete knowledge…

In response, superintendent of the district Jeremy Glenn said,

Let’s not misrepresent things. We’re not taking Shakespeare, Hemingway off the shelves, and we’re not going and grabbing every socially, culturally, or religiously diverse book and pulling them. That’s absurd. And the people that are saying that are gaslighters, and it’s designed to incite division.

He went on to discuss “radicals” in school board meetings that he claims are sowing division in the community.

The students speaking out at the school board meeting decided to take these accusations and use them to raise money to fight censorship.

. . . .

They are selling a tee shirt with the text “radical gaslighter” on it, and all proceeds go to the Freedom to Read Foundation.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG notes that this particular censorship apparently originated with right-wing critics. In the US in recent years, censorship and book bans have primarily been from the Woke left.

Hong Kong Police Arrest Five Over Children’s Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

Hong Kong’s national-security police arrested five people for allegedly conspiring to commit sedition through a series of picture books that portray sheep being targeted by wolves—an allusion to China’s crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in the city.

Hours after police detained five members of a speech therapists’ union, police displayed three illustrated books that they say incited hatred against the government among children as young as four. The cartoons simplified “political issues that kids wouldn’t comprehend and beautifies criminal activities,” Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah told a news conference. “They’re meant to poison the minds of children,” he said.

Described as teaching aids, the books were distributed through pro-democracy businesses, local political offices and online by the speech therapists’ union, which was founded in November 2019—a time when some activists formed workers’ groups as a way to organize protest actions against the government.

The books include one titled “The Guardians of Sheep Village,” which is set against the backdrop of antigovernment protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. It depicts a malicious plot by the wolves to take over the sheep’s village and devour them all.

Another, “12 Warriors of Sheep Village,” refers to a dozen activists who were caught by the Chinese coast guard during an ill-fated boat escape from Hong Kong last year. The third book in the series, titled “Street Cleaners of Sheep Village,” alludes to a medical workers’ strike last year when Hong Kong faced its first coronavirus infections imported from China, using cartoons of littering wolves to portray outsiders.

. . . .

Thursday’s arrests are part of an intensifying crackdown on dissent in the former British colony and were made on the same day that four former executives and journalists of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily appeared in court charged with violating the national-security law by conspiring to collude with external forces. Apple Daily, founded by jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai, was forced to cease publication last month after authorities seized its assets.

. . . .

Publishers have been among the targets of authorities since the national-security law was imposed last year. Media groups and opposition groups have raised concerns that free speech is being eliminated and so-called red lines about what amounts to a crime are being expanded to eliminate criticism of authorities.

“Even children’s picture books cross the red line,” Herbert Chow, a local businessman who supports the protest movement, wrote in a Facebook post referring to the arrests.

The five people arrested—two men and three women, aged between 25 and 28 years old—are board members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. They were detained under a colonial-era antisedition law rather than the security law imposed by China.

In its online mission statement, the union says it has chosen to align itself with the politically marginalized. “We are a group of speech therapists, we should walk with the unheard,” it said on its website. “Those who are lucky won’t understand that being able to speak is a luxury. But we resonate with this.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)