Russian 'News' Agency Battles Facebook Over Account Removals

Last year, Facebook responded to Russian interference in U.S. elections by removing dozens of accounts that the company believed were controlled by the Kremlin-backed troll farm Internet Research Agency.

One of those accounts, the “Federal Agency of News” or FAN, subsequently claimed in a lawsuit that its First Amendment rights were violated when it was censored by Facebook.

The Russian company insists it's a legitimate “news” organization, despite at least one connection to an operative who allegedly sought to meddle in elections: FAN's accountant, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, was indicted last year for conspiring to manipulate elections in the U.S.

FAN went ahead with its lawsuit despite the fact that numerous judges have said Facebook -- like Google, Twitter and other tech platforms -- is free to remove content at will.

Judges have also ruled that companies like Facebook aren't liable for removing users' posts, because the Communications Decency Act immunizes web platforms when they remove material.

On Wednesday, FAN doubled down on its claims, arguing in papers filed with U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California that its First Amendment rights were violated by Facebook.

“By blocking FAN’s Facebook account and deleting the contents on its web-based platform, Facebook engaged in content-based restrictions of free speech, and violated Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” the “news” operation argues.

The First Amendment prohibits “state actors” -- meaning the government and its agents -- from censoring speech based on viewpoint. That's why government officials can't pick and choose, for instance, which groups are allowed to hand out literature in public places. But the First Amendment doesn't prevent private companies, like newspapers, from makings decisions about, say, which op-eds to run.

FAN essentially argues in its new legal papers that Facebook should be viewed more like the government than a newspaper. Among other reasons, the Russian agency contends that Facebook is “heavily entwined” with the government, because Facebook cooperated with congressional inquiries into election tampering.

For its part, Facebook said in court papers filed last month that the case should be dismissed.

“Facebook is, quite obviously, not a government actor. It is a private company,” the tech platform wrote.

Facebook has reason to believe Koh will agree. Several years ago, she sided with Facebook in a similar lawsuit brought by the nonprofit group Sikhs for Justice, which alleged that its pages were blocked in India by Facebook. Koh threw out that matter, ruling that Facebook's decisions about content were protected by the Communications Decency Act. A federal appellate court upheld that decision in 2017.

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