What does Gonzales v. Google mean for Data Privacy?

James Grieco
James Grieco
Feb 28, 2023
min read
What does Gonzales v. Google mean for Data Privacy?

Last week the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Gonzales v. Google, a case which could alter how algorithms are pushed on users and have far-reaching data privacy ramifications.

What is Gonzales v. Google?

Nohemi Gonzales was an American university student on an exchange program who became engaged with the Islamic State and terrorist activities. Gonzales was killed in a November 2015 ISIS-led terror attack in Paris.

The Gonzales family then sued Google over the company’s algorithm-based recommendation system that promotes content to individuals based on previous consumption habits. They argued that Youtube content had radicalized their daughter by recommending ISIS recruitment videos, thus bearing some responsibility for her death.

After working its way through the courts, the Supreme Court decided in October 2022 to hear the case and make a potential ruling on the fate of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996

What is Section 230?

Section 230c reads: 

“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.

​No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of 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.”

What this means in a nutshell is that internet platforms hosting content from others cannot be held liable for said content. For companies like search engines, social media, and entertainment platforms, that provides a legal shield from being sued anytime an individual has a legal complaint about content on a site.

However, back in 1996 when the law was passed, those companies largely did not exist, or looked nothing like they do today, with advanced algorithms and so much third-party content that professional moderation teams cannot even go through 1% of everything posted.

What does this have to do with Data Privacy?

Gonzales v. Google does not have a direct tie-in to data privacy, but the Court seems determined to adjust Section 230 and bring it more in-line with today’s internet, which would have cascading effects throughout the web.

The most obvious? These algorithms that recommend videos and ads work off of browsing history, cookies, and other trackers. 

Justice Barrett noted the difference “between the content itself and the website’s choice of how to publish it.” A judgment on that differentiation would likely force Big Tech to adjust how it collects user data, as search engine and social media business models rely on that data to turn a profit.

Could Gonzales v. Google be good for Data Privacy?

Although the Supreme Court’s decision on Gonzales v. Google, which will be published sometime before mid-June, brings attention to the issue and reignites debates about how Big Tech platforms should interact with users, a sweeping and dramatic change is unlikely. 

Firstly, every justice on the Supreme Court is over the age of 50, so hardly a tech-savvy group of individuals. Secondly, the nature of Supreme Court decisions in the moment make it such that seismic shifts do not happen suddenly. 

Justice Kavanaugh insinuated as much when considering the difficulty of predicting the impact of a revised Section 230, “Isn’t it better … to put the burden on Congress to change [the law], and they can consider the implications and make these predictive judgments?”

While he is right, that reality signals a pressing issue that has plagued data protection and the internet: the glacial pace of technological legislation and regulation.

Section 230 is imperfect but has worked all these years because it does not impede upon the internet’s growth, which is faster and more algorithm-driven today than the greater public in 1996 likely could have imagined. 

Trying to wrestle control of accountability back when regulations are perpetually years behind is a tall task. 

That doesn’t mean any decision on Gonzales v. Google is ultimately going to be a negative for data privacy, since those issues are very much top-of-mind for many and Big Tech will have to adjust its practices under more scrutiny than it’s ever been under. 

It does mean, however, that the public, the business community, and governments will all need to be more aware and focused on protecting data rights as any shift unfolds. Are they ready for the challenge? Let’s hope so.