Beatrice Gonzalez was at the barber shop she runs in Whittier, Calif., when she received the news that would change her life.
Nohemi, or Mimi to her family, had worked hard for years to get into college, excelling at everything she put her mind to, Gonzalez said. She was her only daughter.
“I was in pain; I was in a bubble,” she said during an interview with The Washington Post.
When lawyers from an Israeli law center that specializes in suing companies that aid terrorists asked if she was interested in launching a lawsuit related to her daughter’s death, she said yes, hoping that it might be a way to honor Nohemi’s memory.
Now, eight years after Nohemi’s killing, Gonzalez is in Washington, preparing to watch that case argued before the Supreme Court. The Israeli law center, a nonprofit called Shurat HaDin, which translates from Hebrew as “letter of the law,” has spent years suing tech companies for hosting propaganda and recruitment messages from terrorist and militant organizations. It has mostly lost.
In 2017, the Gonzalez family and the lawyers filed their case, arguing that Google’s YouTube video site broke the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act by promoting Islamic State propaganda videos with its recommendation algorithms. Google says the case is without merit because the law protects internet companies from liability for content posted by their users. The lower courts sided with Google, but the family appealed, and in October the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The Supreme Court’s decision could have major ramifications for both the internet as we know it and the tech giants who dominate it. For nearly three decades, Section 230, the provision of law that is at the heart of the Supreme Court case, has protected internet companies from being liable for the content posted by their users, allowing platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to grow into the cultural and commercial behemoths they are today.
Advocates argue the law is vital to a free and open internet, giving companies space to allow users to freely post what they want, while also giving them the ability to police their platforms as they see fit, keeping them from being further inundated with spam or harassment. Critics of the law say it gives tech companies a pass to shirk responsibility or engage in unfair censorship. Seventy-nine outside companies, trade organizations, politicians and nonprofits have submitted arguments in the case.
Gonzalez said she never imagined the case would become so significant.
“I can’t even believe now that I’m here in Washington and about to go to court,” she said.
José Castañeda, a spokesperson for Google, declined to comment on the case but pointed to a January blog post from Google general counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado.
The court’s decision “could radically alter the way that Americans use the internet,” DeLaine Prado said. Changing Section 230 could make it difficult for companies to use algorithms to recommend any content, from songs on Spotify to items from small businesses on e-commerce platforms such as Etsy, she said.
YouTube’s policies prohibit terrorist content, but the company’s moderation algorithms often miss new video uploads.
Gonzalez immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1989, settling in Whittier, a majority-Hispanic suburb of Los Angeles once home to Richard M. Nixon. Gonzalez had Nohemi three years later. By the time she was 4 years old, Gonzalez said, Nohemi knew she wanted to go to college. While her mother saved money working 13-hour days as a hairdresser, Nohemi spent her time reading, going to school and participating in a range of sports including swimming, soccer, and track and field.
“Anything that she could join, she joined,” Gonzalez said. Nohemi graduated high school and left home to attend California State University at Long Beach’s industrial design program.
“We were very close, but at the same time she was independent and self-sufficient, and she had her own life at a very young age,” Gonzalez said.
A YouTube video posted seven months before her death shows Nohemi presenting at a design fair, showing off a light fixture inspired by “majestic landscapes from Southern California’s beaches, the Grand Canyon and the Moab Arches.” She talks about her passion for design and tells the audience how lucky she feels to be able to do what she loves.
“There’s a lot of people who go through life, they don’t find their passion. I feel fortunate because not a lot of people get to have higher education. We do get to follow what we love and do it every day,” Nohemi says in the video.
At college, Nohemi worked as a teacher’s assistant, and her mother believes her true dream was to stay in academia and become a design professor, sharing what she loved with other students.
“She had it in her soul; she always wanted to teach,” Gonzalez said.
Nohemi also found time in college to run, hike, surf and travel, her mother said.
“She took me to Catalina Island one time for my birthday. She was always on the move,” Gonzalez said. “She was so happy because it was her dream to go to Paris, and she did — she lived her dream.”
The Gonzalez family’s lawyers have focused their argument on YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which choose what videos certain users see on the video site. By specifically recommending Islamic State videos, YouTube is going beyond the bounds of what is protected under Section 230, they argue.
Part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Section 230 is credited with aiding the rise of tech giants thanks to its liability protections. But it’s also criticized as outdated, written before so much of the world became reliant on the internet. And while it’s one of the few bipartisan issues in Congress, efforts to revise it have failed.
A day after the Supreme Court hears the Gonzalez family’s case, the justices will take up a related case, brought by family members of terrorist attack victims suing social media companies for hosting Islamic State content.
Google, other tech companies and a raft of internet freedom organizations have all argued that cutting into the protections Section 230 offers would have an almost apocalyptic effect on the internet.
“The stakes could not be higher,” DeLaine Prado, the Google general counsel, said in the blog post. “A decision undermining Section 230 would make websites either remove potentially controversial material or shut their eyes to objectionable content to avoid knowledge of it.”
And there could be other consequences. YouTube and other social media sites rely on user-generated content to fill up their platforms and bring in audiences to show lucrative ads to. Companies could also be drowned in lawsuits from people who disagree with a decision by a company to allow or not allow a particular piece of content to be published.
The Gonzalez family’s lawyers say the concerns are overblown. To them it’s simple: The world’s biggest and most profitable companies shouldn’t be allowed to recommend terrorist content and should be held responsible for it when they do.
It’s no different from a bank that handles a money transfer between terrorist groups, said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president and founder of Shurat HaDin. Section 230 might have made sense when it was passed, but the companies have grown into behemoths that should be held responsible, she said.
“Twenty-five years later, it’s a different picture. They have algorithms, they have tools, and they utilize content for their business model,” Darshan-Leitner said. “This is why it’s time to reconsider Section 230.”
She founded the organization in the early 2000s and has led lawsuits against a host of banks, companies and countries. Shurat HaDin says it has won over $2 billion in judgments and secured hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for victims of violent terrorist attacks. The organization is completely funded by private donations and doesn’t receive money from the Israeli state or other governments, Darshan-Leitner said.
In 2015, the organization sued Facebook for hosting social media posts, messages and memes that it alleged encouraged young Palestinians to attack Israeli citizens. It filed a separate case against the social media giant on behalf of three terrorism victims a year later. Both cases were eventually dismissed.
A member of Los Angeles’s Jewish community who was familiar with Shurat HaDin’s work initially connected the group to the Gonzalez family, Darshan-Leitner said.
For Gonzalez, the important thing is remembering her daughter and trying to find ways that her memory can bring positive change. One of her sons has a daughter of his own now, named after his sister.
Nohemi’s energy and desire to experience life still inspire her to this day, Gonzalez said.
“I was working 12, 13, 14 hours every day in the barber shop, and she was going here and there with school friends,” she said. “We learned from her. Now we try to relax a little bit and be a little bit like her.”