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A Lawsuit Argues Meta Is Required by Law to Let You Control Your Own Feed

May 1, 2024 12:09 PM

A Lawsuit Argues Meta Is Required by Law to Let You Control Your Own Feed

Academic Ethan Zuckerman is suing Meta to win protections for add-ons that help researchers study the platform and give users more control over their feeds.

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A lawsuit filed Wednesday against Meta argues that US law requires the company to let people use unofficial add-ons to gain more control over their social feeds.

It’s the latest in a series of disputes in which the company has tussled with researchers and developers over tools that give users extra privacy options or that collect research data. It could clear the way for researchers to release add-ons that aid research into how the algorithms on social platforms affect their users, and it could give people more control over the algorithms that shape their lives.

The suit was filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University on behalf of researcher Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. It attempts to take a federal law that has generally shielded social networks and use it as a tool forcing transparency.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is best known for allowing social media companies to evade legal liability for content on their platforms. Zuckerman’s suit argues that one of its subsections gives users the right to control how they access the internet, and the tools they use to do so.

“Section 230 (c) (2) (b) is quite explicit about libraries, parents, and others having the ability to control obscene or other unwanted content on the internet,” says Zuckerman. “I actually think that anticipates having control over a social network like Facebook, having this ability to sort of say, ‘We want to be able to opt out of the algorithm.’”

Zuckerman’s suit is aimed at preventing Facebook from blocking a new browser extension for Facebook that he is working on called Unfollow Everything 2.0. It would allow users to easily “unfollow” friends, groups, and pages on the service, meaning that updates from them no longer appear in the user’s newsfeed.

Zuckerman says that this would provide users the power to tune or effectively disable Facebook’s engagement-driven feed. Users can technically do this without the tool, but only by unfollowing each friend, group, and page individually.

There’s good reason to think Meta might make changes to Facebook to block Zuckerman’s tool after it is released. He says he won’t launch it without a ruling on his suit. In 2020, the company argued that the browser Friendly, which had let users search and reorder their Facebook news feeds as well as block ads and trackers, violated its terms of service and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In 2021, Meta permanently banned Louis Barclay, a British developer who had created a tool called Unfollow Everything, which Zuckerman’s add-on is named after.

“I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly,” Barclay wrote for Slate at the time. “But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically.”

The same year, Meta kicked off from its platform some New York University researchers who had created a tool that monitored the political ads people saw on Facebook. Zuckerman is adding a feature to Unfollow Everything 2.0 that allows people to donate data from their use of the tool to his research project. He hopes to use the data to investigate whether users of his add-on who cleanse their feeds end up, like Barclay, using Facebook less.

Sophia Cope, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, says that the core parts of Section 230 related to platforms’ liability for content posted by users have been clarified through potentially thousands of cases. But few have specifically dealt with the part of the law Zuckerman’s suit seeks to leverage.

“There isn’t that much case law on that section of the law, so it will be interesting to see how a judge breaks it down,” says Cope. Zuckerman is a member of the EFF’s board of advisers.

John Morris, a principal at the Internet Society, a nonprofit that promotes open development of the internet, says that, to his knowledge, Zuckerman’s strategy “hasn’t been used before, in terms of using Section 230 to grant affirmative rights to users,” noting that a judge would likely take that claim seriously.

Meta has previously suggested that allowing add-ons that modify how people use its services raises security and privacy concerns. But Daphne Keller, director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, says that Zuckerman’s tool may be able to fairly push back on such an accusation.“The main problem with tools that give users more control over content moderation on existing platforms often has to do with privacy,” she says. “But if all this does is unfollow specified accounts, I would not expect that problem to arise here."

Even if a tool like Unfollow Everything 2.0 didn’t compromise users’ privacy, Meta might still be able to argue that it violates the company’s terms of service, as it did in Barclay’s case.

“Given Meta’s history, I could see why he would want a preemptive judgment,” says Cope. “He’d be immunized against any civil claim brought against him by Meta.”

And though Zuckerman says he would not be surprised if it takes years for his case to wind its way through the courts, he believes it’s important. “This feels like a particularly compelling case to do at a moment where people are really concerned about the power of algorithms,” he says.

Vittoria Elliott is a reporter for WIRED, covering platforms and power. She was previously a reporter at Rest of World, where she covered disinformation and labor in markets outside the US and Western Europe. She has worked with The New Humanitarian, Al Jazeera, and ProPublica. She is a graduate of… Read more
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