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Supreme Court justices in Google case express hesitation about upending Section 230

Supreme Court Justices voiced hesitation on Tuesday about upending a key legal shield that protects tech companies from liability for their users’ posts, and for how the companies moderate messages on their sites.

Justices across the ideological spectrum expressed concern with breaking the delicate balance set by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as they rule on the pivotal case, Gonzalez v. Google
, even as some suggested a narrower reading of the liability shield could sometimes make sense.

The current case was brought by the family of an American killed in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. The petitioners argue that Google
, through its subsidiary YouTube, violated the Anti-Terrorism Act by aiding and abetting ISIS, as it promoted the group’s videos through its recommendation algorithm. Lower courts sided with Google, saying Section 230 protects the company from being held liable for third-party content posted on its service.

The petitioners contend that YouTube’s recommendations actually constitute the company’s own speech, which would fall outside the bounds of the liability shield.

But the justices struggled to understand where the petitioner’s counsel, Eric Schnapper, was drawing the line on what counts as content created by YouTube itself.

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito at one point said he was “completely confused” by the distinction Schnapper tried to draw between YouTube’s own speech and that of a third party.

Schnapper repeatedly pointed to the thumbnail image YouTube shows users to display what video is coming up next, or is suggested based on their views. He said that thumbnail was a joint creation between YouTube and the third party that posted the video, in this case ISIS, because YouTube contributes the URL.

But several justices questioned whether that argument would apply to any attempt to organize information from the internet, including a search engine results page. They expressed concern that such a broad interpretation could have far-reaching effects the high court may not be prepared to predict.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that courts have applied Section 230 consistently since its inception in the 1990s and pointed to the amici briefs that warned overhauling that interpretation would cause massive economic consequences for many businesses, as well as their workers, consumers and investors. Kavanaugh said those are “serious concerns” Congress could consider if it sought to rework the statute. But the Supreme Court, he said, is “not equipped to account for that.”

“You’re asking us right now to make a very precise predictive judgment that ‘Don’t worry, that it’s really not going to be that bad,’” Kavanaugh told U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart, who was arguing the high court should send the case back to the lower court for further consideration. “I don’t know that that’s at all the case. And I don’t know how we can assess that in any meaningful way.”

When Stewart suggested that Congress could amend 230 to account for changes in the reality of the internet today, Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back, noting “the amici suggests that if we wait for Congress to make that choice, the internet will be sunk.”

Even conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who has openly written that the court should take up a case around Section 230, seemed skeptical of the petitioners’ line in the sand. Thomas noted that YouTube uses the same algorithm to recommend ISIS videos to users interested in that kind of content, as it uses to promote cooking videos to those interested in that subject. Plus, he said, he sees those as suggestions, not affirmative recommendations.

“I don’t understand how a neutral suggestion about something that you’ve expressed an interest in is aiding and abetting,” Thomas said.

The justices had tough questions for Google too, wondering if the liability protections are quite as broad as the tech industry would like to believe. Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, for example, had a long back and forth with Lisa Blatt, counsel arguing on behalf of Google, about whether YouTube would be protected by Section 230 in the hypothetical scenario in which the company promotes an ISIS video on its homepage in a box marked “featured.”

Blatt said publishing a homepage is inherent to operating a website so should be covered by Section 230, and that organization is a core function of platforms, so if topic headings can’t be covered, the statute basically becomes a “dead letter.”

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan suggested it’s not necessary to agree completely with Google’s assessment of the fallout from altering 230 to fear the potential consequences.

“I don’t have to accept all of Ms. Blatt’s ‘the sky is falling’ stuff to accept something about, ‘Boy, there’s a lot of uncertainty about going the way you would have us go,’ in part just because of the difficulty of drawing lines in this area,” Kagan told Schnapper, adding the job may be better suited for Congress.

“We’re a court, we really don’t know about these things,” Kagan said. “These are not like the nine greatest experts on the internet.”

Section 230 proponents are optimistic
Several experts rooting for Google’s success in this case said they were more optimistic after the arguments than before at a press conference convened by Chamber of Progress, a center-left industry group that Google and other major tech platforms support.

Cathy Gellis is an independent attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area who filed an amicus brief on behalf of a person running a Mastodon server, as well as a Google-funded startup advocacy group and a digital think tank. She told CNBC that briefs like hers and others seemed to have a big impact on the court.

“It would appear that if nothing else, amicus counsel, not just myself, but my other colleagues, may have saved the day because it was evident that the justices took a lot of those lessons on board,” Gellis said.

“And it appeared overall that there was not a huge appetite to upend the internet, especially on a case that I believe for them looked rather weak from a plaintiff’s point of view.”

Still, Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said while he felt more optimistic on the outcome of the Gonzalez case, he remains concerned for the future of Section 230.

“I remain petrified that the opinion is going to put all of us in an unexpected circumstance,” Goldman said.

On Wednesday, the justices will hear a similar case with a different legal question.

In Twitter v. Taamneh, the justices will similarly consider whether Twitter can be held liable for aiding and abetting under the Anti-Terrorism Act. But in this case, the focus is on whether Twitter’s decision to regularly remove terrorist posts means it had knowledge of such messages on its platform and should have taken more aggressive action against them.

Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Schnapper how the decision in that case could impact the one in the Google matter. Schnapper said if the court ruled against Taamneh, the Gonzalez counsel should be given the chance to amend their arguments in a way that fits the standard set in the other case.

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Pope in Hungary meets with Ukrainian refugees, Russian envoy

Pope Francis plunged into both sides of Russia’s war with Ukraine on Saturday, greeting some of the 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled across the border to Hungary during a public prayer service and then meeting privately with an envoy of the Russian Orthodox Church that has strongly supported the war.

Francis maintained the Vatican’s tradition of diplomatic neutrality during his second day in Budapest, where he’s on a weekend visit to minister to Hungary’s Catholic faithful.

Starting the day, he thanked Hungarians for welcoming Ukrainian refugees and urged them to help anyone in need. He called for a culture of charity in a country where the prime minister has justified firm anti-immigration policies with fears that migration threatens Europe’s Christian culture.

Speaking in the white-brick St. Elizabeth’s church, named for a princess who renounced her wealth to care for the poor, Francis recalled that the Gospel instructs Christians to show love and compassion to all, especially those experiencing poverty and “even those who are not believers.”

“The love that Jesus gives us and commands us to practice can help to uproot the evils of indifference and selfishness from society, from our cities and the places where we live — indifference is a plague —- and to rekindle hope for a new, more just and fraternal world, where all can feel at home,” he said.

Hungary’s nationalist government has implemented firm anti-immigration policies and refused to accept many asylum-seekers trying to enter the country through its southern border, leading to prolonged legal disputes with the European Union.

The conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has said that migration threatens to replace Europe’s Christian culture. Orbán, who has held office since 2010, has hinged multiple election campaigns on the threats he alleges that migrants and refugees pose to Hungarians.

While Orbán’s government has consistently rejected asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa, around 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing war in their country found open doors. Around 35,000 of the refugees remain in Hungary and have registered for temporary protection there, according to the U.N.

One who has chosen to stay was Olesia Misiats, a nurse who worked in a Kyiv COVID-19 hospital when she fled with her mother and two daughters on Feb. 24, 2022 — the day Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

First she went to the Netherlands, but high costs compelled her to move to Hungary, where she said she has found an apartment and given birth to her third daughter, Mila, who was in the pews Saturday with her mother and sister.

“Here it’s safe,” Misiats said of her new life. She said that she hopes to return to Kyiv one day, but for now she and her children are adapting. “I want to go back home. There it’s my life — it was my life,” she said. “But the war changed my life.”

Immediately after greeting and encouraging the refugees, Francis visited the Greek Catholic church next door, which has been providing aid to refugees. And then he met with the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion, who developed close relations with the Vatican during his years as the Russian church’s foreign minister. The Vatican said the 20-minute meeting at the Holy See’s embassy in Budapest was “cordial.”

The Russian church’s strong support for the Kremlin’s war has rankled the Vatican and prevented a second papal meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Francis and Kirill had a 2016 encounter in Cuba that marked the first between a pope and the head of the Russian church. They had planned a second one in June, but the meeting has been indefinitely postponed over Kirill’s support for the war.

In a statement, Hilarion’s office said that he briefed Francis on the social and educational activities of the Russian church in Hungary and its relations with the Catholic Church here. He said that he gave the pope an Italian translation of a six-volume opus on the life of Christ.

Francis’ visit to Hungary, his second in as many years, is bringing him as close as he’s come to the front lines of the war. Upon arriving in Budapest on Friday, he denounced the “adolescent belligerence” that had brought war back to European soil and demanded the EU recover its values of peaceful unity to end

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As battle for Sudan continues, civilian deaths top 400

– Gunfire and heavy artillery fire persisted Saturday in parts of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, residents said, despite the extension of a cease-fire between the country’s two top generals, whose battle for power has killed hundreds and sent thousands fleeing for their lives.

With ordinary Sudanese caught in the crossfire, the civilian death toll jumped Saturday to 411 people, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate, which monitors casualties. In some areas in and around the capital, residents reported that shops were reopening and normalcy gradually returning as the scale of fighting dwindled after the shaky truce. But in other areas, terrified residents reported explosions thundering around them and fighters ransacking houses.

Now in its third week, the fighting has wounded 2,023 civilians, the syndicate added, although the true toll is expected to be much higher. The Sudanese Health Ministry put the overall death toll, including fighters, at 528, with 4,500 wounded. In the city of Genena, the provincial capital of war-ravaged West Darfur, intensified violence has killed 89 people, the Doctors’ Syndicate said.

Khartoum, a city of some 5 million people, has been transformed into a front line in the grinding conflict between Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, the commander of Sudan’s military, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces. The outbreak of violence has dashed once-euphoric hopes for a democratic transition in Sudan after a popular uprising helped oust former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Foreign countries continued to evacuate their citizens while hundreds of thousands of Sudanese fled across borders. The first convoy organized by the United States to evacuate hundreds of American citizens from the conflict reached the coastal city of Port Sudan Saturday after a dangerous overland journey escorted by armed drones.

Britain meanwhile was ending its evacuation flights Saturday, after demand for spots on the planes declined. The United Arab Emirates announced Saturday it had started evacuating its own citizens along with nationals of 16 other countries.

Over 50,000 Sudanese refugees — mostly women and children — have crossed over to Chad, Egypt, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the United Nations said, raising fears of regional instability. Ethnic fighting and turmoil has scarred South Sudan and the Central African Republic for years while a 2021 coup has derailed Chad’s own democratic transition.

Those who escape the fighting in Khartoum face more dangers on their way to safety. The route to Port Sudan, where ships evacuate people via the Red Sea, has proven long, exhausting and risky. Hatim el-Madani, a former journalist, said that paramilitary fighters were stopping refugees at roadblocks outside Khartoum, demanding they hand over their phones and valuables.

“There’s an outlaw, bandit-like nature to the RSF,” he said, referring to Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces. “They don’t have a supply line in place. That could get worse in the coming days.”

Airlifts from the country amid the chaotic fighting also posed challenges, with a Turkish evacuation plane even hit by gunfire outside Khartoum on Friday.

On Saturday — despite a cease-fire extended under heavy international pressure early Friday — clashes continued around the presidential palace, headquarters of the state broadcaster and a military base in Khartoum, residents said. The battles sent thick columns of black smoke billowing over the city skyline.

But in other areas, residents reported signs that the cease-fire had taken hold.

“We are not hearing the bombs as we did before, so we’re hoping that this means they will go back to a political process,” said Osman Mirgany, a columnist and editor of the daily al-Tayar, who assessed it was safe enough on Friday to return home to Khartoum after seeking refuge in a far-flung village.

But Khartoum residents are forced to live side by side with armed fighters. Many RSF militants have moved into civilian homes and taken over stores and hospitals in the capital. The paramilitary group even transformed Mirgany’s newsroom into a makeshift base, he said. Residents also must cope without sufficient electricity and running water, among other basic supplies.

“For the past 14 days we’ve suffered from a lack of everything,” Mirgany said.

Residents in the city of Omdurman, west of Khartoum, have been waiting at least three days to get fuel — complicating their escape plans.

The U.N. relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said that U.N. offices in Khartoum, as well as the cities of Genena and Nyala in Darfur had been attacked and looted. Genena’s main hospital was also leveled in the fighting, Sudan’s health ministry said.

“This is unacceptable — and prohibited under international law,” Griffiths said.

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Will you marry me?’ Bulgarian woman contacts News 6 to expose international romance scheme

A 52-year-old Bulgarian woman currently working in Ireland is the latest target of international imposters who use stolen photos of a handsome Carnival Cruise Line officer in an online dating scheme that steals victims’ money.

Alessandro Cinquini, 29, who is known on dating sites as “Alex the Officer,” first contacted News 6 in March 2022 when he discovered his photographs were being used to fool women from Florida to India.

Vanya Dimova contacted News 6 after seeing our reports about Cinquini on the web.

She said an Alex imposter sent her photos and videos of lavish gifts that included a shimmering engagement ring.

Alessandro Cinquini has gone public to warn women across the globe that imposters have stolen his photographs from social media platforms to create “catfish” style profiles that offer love but target money.

News 6 sent 15 questions to her in advance so Dimova could translate and prepare responses during a Zoom interview.

She said she met the Alex imposter on Instagram back on March 26. According to Dimova, the conversation went from casual to romantic very quickly.

“After two days, he told me he was in love with me,” Danya told News 6. “Every day, he tell me he want to buy a house in Bulgaria and live together.”

Cinquini told News 6 the imposters have never stopped using his photos and he assured us he never contacted Dimova.

They have my old pictures from my old life,” Cinquini said. “Most of those pictures aren’t on my Instagram anymore. I canceled them years ago.”

He told News 6 he currently works as a fleet operation center watch officer for Carnival Cruise Line.

Danya sent News 6 a voice message from a man claiming to be Alex.

“I love you, I love you,” the man said.

The voice sounded nothing like Cinquini

Danya said that voice recording was the only evidence she has. She never met the imposter face-to-face or spoke to him on FaceTime or Zoom.

Danya said she became suspicious when the imposter asked her to pay the shipping charges for her gifts. He sent her a Bank of America receipt to prove his account had been frozen.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, romance scams in the U.S alone netted an estimated $1.3 billion last year, impacting 70,000 men and women.

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