Professor Seeks To Block Meta Lawsuit Over Research Tool

An Amherst University professor on Wednesday sought a court order that would prevent Meta Platforms from suing over a tool designed to enable him to study the impact of Facebook's algorithms on users' health.

The tool, Unfollow Everything 2.0, is a downloadable extension that would allow Facebook users to automatically unfollow friends, groups and pages, and then decide which people or groups to manually follow again. 

People who download the tool would be able to opt in to Professor Ethan Zuckerman's proposed study -- which is designed to collect anonymized data in order to study how Facebook's news feed affects users' well-being and behavior.

Zuckerman's attorneys with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University allege in a complaint filed Wednesday that he hasn't yet released Unfollow Everything 2.0 because Meta previously threatened legal action over an earlier version issued in 2021 by developer Louis Barclay.



“Professor Zuckerman is unwilling to subject himself and his team to the risk of legal action,” his counsel alleges in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

He is seeking a declaratory judgment that the tool doesn't violate Facebook's terms of service or anti-hacking laws, and an order prohibiting Meta from suing over the tool.

His complaint includes a claim that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes him from a lawsuit by Meta. That law has a provision protecting providers of interactive computer services from liability for offering technology that restricts “objectionable” material.

“The purpose of the tool is to allow users who find the news feed objectionable, or who find the specific sequencing of posts within their news feed objectionable, to effectively turn off the feed,” his complaint alleges.

The complaint notes that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals previously said Section 230's protections for services that block “objectionable” material prevented defunct adware company Zango from suing Kaspersky Lab over its anti-adware programs.

Meta previously prevailed on a key legal issue in a battle with analytics company BrandTotal over its downloadable extension -- which collected data from Facebook users who opted in, and who received compensation. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Spero in San Francisco said in that case that BrandTotal violated Meta's terms of service by using automated means to collect information about consumers.

BrandTotal ultimately settled the dispute.

Unlike Zuckerman, BrandTotal didn't argue that its extension blocked objectionable material, and was therefore protected by Section 230.

Meta hasn't yet responded to MediaPost's request for comment.

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