Facebook Defeats Russian 'News' Agency's Censorship Claim

Handing Facebook a victory, a federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit by the Russian company “Federal Agency of News,” which claimed its First Amendment rights were violated when it was taken down by the social networking platform.

In a ruling issued Saturday, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California said Facebook wasn't a government entity, and therefore wasn't bound by the First Amendment's prohibition on censorship. Koh also ruled that the Communications Decency Act immunizes Facebook from liability for decisions about how to treat content created by outside parties, like the Federal Agency of News.

The dispute between Facebook and the Russian “news” agency dates to last year, when the social networking service removed 70 accounts it believed were controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed company that engages in online influence operations for the Russian government.

The "Federal Agency of News,” which was among the removed accounts, alleged in a lawsuit filed last November that its First Amendment rights were violated by the takedown.

The Russian company acknowledged in its complaint that its accountant, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, is under indictment for conspiring to manipulate elections in the U.S. But the organization -- which described itself in the complaint as “a legitimate news organization that adheres to journalistic standards in its publications” -- argued that Khusyaynova was merely a bookkeeper who doesn't play a role in editorial decisions.

Koh noted in her 23-page ruling that other courts have ruled both that Facebook doesn't violate the First Amendment by removing content, and that web platforms are immune from liability for removing political speech.

Several years ago, Koh herself ruled in Facebook's favor in a similar lawsuit. In that matter, the nonprofit group Sikhs for Justice sued after its pages were blocked in India by Facebook. Koh dismissed that lawsuit, ruling that Facebook's decisions about content were protected by the Communications Decency Act. A federal appellate court upheld Koh's ruling in 2017.

Koh also ruled in Google's favor in a lawsuit by Prager University, which alleged it was discriminated against by Google for political reasons.

Prager alleged in a 2017 lawsuit that Google wrongly applied its "restricted mode" filter to the school's videos, effectively making them unavailable to some students and library patrons. Prager also alleged that Google "demonetized" some conservative videos.

Koh ruled that because Google is a private business, as opposed to a government entity, it can decide how to treat content on its platform.

Prager is currently appealing that decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Other district court judges have come to the same conclusion as Koh in comparable lawsuits. For instance, in May, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton in the Northern District of California threw out claims by an Egyptian activist who alleged Facebook violated his free speech rights by suspending his account, preventing him from joining groups, and marking his posts as spam.

And in March, U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden in the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit against by right-wing activists Laura Loomer and Freedom Watch, who accused Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple of conspiring to suppress conservative views.

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