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Lawsuit against Meta asks whether Facebook users have the right to monitor feeds with third-party tools

Do social media users have the right to control what they see or don’t see on their feeds?

A lawsuit filed against Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc. states that a federal law often used to shield internet companies from liability also allows people to use third-party tools to take control of their feed — even if that means shutting it down completely.

Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Meta Platforms on behalf of an Amherst professor who wants to release a tool that will allow users to unfollow any content served to them by Facebook’s algorithm.

The tool, called Unfollow Everything 2.0, is a browser extension that allows Facebook users to unfollow friends, groups and Pages and clear their news feed — the stream of posts, photos and videos that keep them scrolling endlessly. The idea is that without this constant, addictive stream of content, people might use it less. If the past is any indication, Meta won’t be keen on the idea.

A British developer, Louis Barclay, released a similar tool called Unfollow Everything, but he scrapped it in 2021, fearing a lawsuit after receiving a cease and desist order and a lifetime Facebook ban from Meta, then called Facebook Inc .

With Wednesday’s lawsuit, Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is trying to beat Meta to the legal blow to avoid being sued by the social media giant over the browser extension.

“The reason it’s worth challenging Facebook on this is that right now, as users, we have very little control over how we use these networks,” Zuckerman said in an interview. “We basically get all the control that Facebook wants. And that’s actually very different from how the internet has worked historically.” Think of email, which allows people to use different email clients, or different web browsers, or anti-tracking software for people who don’t want to be tracked.

Meta declined to comment.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in California centers on a provision of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which is often used to shield Internet companies from liability for things posted on their sites. However, a separate clause provides immunity to software developers who create tools that “filter, screen, allow or deny content that the provider or user deems obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.” ”

In other words, the lawsuit asks the court to determine whether Facebook users’ news feed falls into the category of objectionable material that they must be able to filter out in order to enjoy the platform.

“Maybe CDA 230 gives us the right to build tools to improve your experience with Facebook or other social networks and give you more control over them,” said Zuckerman, who teaches public policy, communications and information at Amherst. “And you know what? If we can identify that, it could really open up a new area of ​​research and development. You could see people start to build tools to make social networking work better for us.

Although Facebook allows users to manually unfollow everything, the process can be cumbersome with hundreds or even thousands of friends, groups and companies that people often follow.

Zuckerman also wants to explore how turning off the news feed affects people’s experience on Facebook. Users must agree to participate in the study; using the browser tool does not automatically register participants.

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