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What a Supreme Court ruling on Section 230 could mean for the internet

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Posted at 11:39 AM, Mar 06, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Outside the Lincoln memorial, families gather. They have been through loss and mental hardship on a level that no parent should ever experience.

"You have children who are in many cases, very well adjusted kids who unbeknownst to their parents become exposed to suicidal content online and in many cases, take their lives or develop eating disorders or anxiety or are sexually abused," said Matthew Bergman, the founding attorney at Social Media Victims Law Center.

Bergman says he and his team represent 1,500 families who claim social media algorithms have harmed their children.

Alexis Spence, 20, says she's been exposed to harmful words and images since she was 12 years old. Spence claims the experiences have led to serious mental illness.

"I started to see more and more wellness content and models and then very slowly that wellness content turned into very harmful content which formulated an eating disorder," she said.

"Some of the things that I saw were like fresh cuts, like still bleeding fresh, malnourished people with, like, their bones, like, protruding out of their bodies and it's. It's awful," Spence added.

Spence and other families traveled to Washington amid a larger debate over free speech online.

The Supreme Court heard two cases in late February, Gonzalez v. Google and Twitter v. Taamneh, which question how much responsibility online platforms have for the content they host.

Right now, they are protected from lawsuits by a law known as Section 230.

"It's really important to look at Section 230 as a free speech protection for users," said David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Greene, whose organization supports Section 230, says the law allows for a more open exchange of ideas since platforms like Facebook and Twitter don't have to worry about legal consequences for controversial material.

"The reason that these middlemen companies have legal protection is so that they can serve that function without these really unreasonable risks of liability, where their choice would be to either read all your stuff first or just not publish it all," he said.

Greene believes any change to Section 230 could have a negative impact on the overall user experience and change the way people use the internet as a marketplace of ideas.

"That just leaves us with a strictly chronological internet, which I, I don't think is what people want," he said.

People like Spence believe there's no reason to protect companies when their platforms are used for the wrong reasons.

The Supreme Court decision is not expected for months.