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Meta sued by professor who wants to release ‘Unfollow Everything 2.0’ tool

A UMass professor wants a judge to find that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shields him from legal action by Meta over a tool to quiet Facebook users' newsfeeds.

(CN) — A University of Massachusetts professor sued Meta, formerly Facebook, on Wednesday to obtain a court ruling that the social media juggernaut can't sue him if he releases an "Unfollow Everything 2.0" tool that would allow Facebook users to turn off their newsfeeds.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed the case in San Francisco on behalf of Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at UMass Amherst.

Zuckerman wants the court to declare that Section 230 of Communications Decency Act, a statute widely used by internet-based businesses to shield them from liability over the content users post on their websites, also protects the development of tools designed to empower people to better control their social media experiences.

“I’m suing Facebook to make it better," Zuckerman said in a statement. "The major social media companies have too much control over what content their users see and don’t see. We’re bringing this lawsuit to give people more control over their social media experience and data and to expand knowledge about how platforms shape public discourse.”

Meta declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In addition to being a media scholar, Zuckerman is also a software developer. According to his lawsuit, he hasn't released his new tool yet because of the near certainty that Meta will sue him if he does.

Three years ago, Meta sent a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action to U.K.-based developer Louis Barclay, who had created a similar tool, also called Unfollow Everything, that was available for free and enabled Facebook users to automate the cumbersome task of unfollowing friends, groups and pages.

Meta, then still called Facebook, permanently deleted Barclay's Facebook and Instagram accounts, and pointing to a provision in its terms of service that purports to bind even former Facebook users, demanded that he never again create a tool that interacts with Facebook or its many other services in any way, Barclay wrote in an op-ed piece at the time.

Unfollow Everything 2.0 is a browser extension, Zuckerman says, that allows Facebook users to more efficiently unfollow friends, groups, and pages, and in doing so to effectively turn off their newsfeeds.

It would also enable people to donate their data to the academic's research study exploring how increasing people’s control over their online experience affects their behavior and well-being.

"Users today are locked in to a social media ecosystem dominated by a handful of for-profit companies that make their money by selling ads," Zuckerman claims in his complaint. "The companies do this by collecting vast amounts of data about their users and using this information to make their platforms as engaging as possible. There is rising public concern that this business model undermines users’ agency and harms public discourse."

Many experts, according to Zuckerman, believe the platforms’ engagement-driven algorithms contribute to the spread of false, extreme, or polarizing content, while also stoking division and violence offline. As a result, users want more control over their social media experiences, but the companies have largely refused to give it to them, he claims.

Zuckerman seeks immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act from any legal action by Meta, a court finding that releasing Unfollow Everything 2.0 wouldn't be a breach of Meta''s terms of service, or to the extent that the terms of service prohibit the tool, a finding that the terms of service violate public policy.

He also asks for the court to rule that operating Unfollow Everything 2.0 doesn't run afoul of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or the California Computer Data Access and Fraud Act.

Zuckerman is represented by Ramya Krishnan, Alex Abdo, Jennifer Jones and Nicole Mo of the Knight First Amendment Institute in New York, and by Max Schoening of Qureshi Law in Los Angeles.

Follow @edpettersson
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