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Lawsuit Asks Court to Give Software Developers, Consumers Right to Curate Social Media Feeds

— May 2, 2024

The lawsuit cites a clause from Section 230 of the Communications Act in arguing that software developers should be permitted to release tools blocking elements of Facebook’s content curation algorithm.

An unusual lawsuit against Facebook and its parent company, Meta Platforms, claims that a federal law often used to shield social media platforms from liability also gives users a right to exercise more extensive control of their feeds.

According to The Associated Press, the lawsuit was filed earlier this week on behalf of plaintiff Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Attorneys for Zuckerman say that their client recently developed a browser extension called “Unfollow Everything 2.0,” which would let Facebook users unfollow any and all content suggested to them by the application’s internal algorithm.

The complaint is likely preemptive, with The Associated Press observing that a United Kingdom-based developer released a similar tool—also termed “Unfollow Everything”—in 2021, but removed the extension after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Meta’s predecessor, Facebook Inc.

A computer in a dark room. Image via Pixabay. Public domain.

Zuckerman said that he hopes his lawsuit will establish that Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act—often cited by social media companies when defending claims related to user-posted content—also protects the rights of software developers to create tools intended to minimize algorithmic intrusions. This claim is predicated on a clause within Section 230, which confers limited immunity to certain types of civil action to developers who design programs that “filter, screen, allow, or disallow content that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise unobjectionable.”

“The reason it’s worth challenging Facebook on this is that right now we have very little control as users over how we use these networks,” Zuckerman told The Associated Press. “We basically get whatever controls Facebook wants. And that’s actually pretty different from how the internet has worked historically.”

The lawsuit, then, is asking a court to determine if certain social media characteristics—like Facebook’s news feed—could be considered “objectionable.”

“Maybe [Section 230] provides us with this right to build tools to make your experience of Facebook or other social networks better and to give you more control over them,” Zuckerman said. “And you know what? If we’re able to establish that, that could really open a new sphere of research and a new sphere of development.”

“You might see people starting to build tools to make social networks work better for us,” he said.

Zuckerman is being represented by the non-profit Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“Social media companies can design their products as they want to, but users have the right to control their experience on social media platforms, including by blocking content they consider to be harmful,” Knight Institute senior staff attorney Ramya Krishnan said in a press release. “Users don’t have to accept Facebook as it’s given to them. The same statute that immunizes Meta from liability for the speech of its users gives users the right to decide what they see on the platform.”


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