Prof asks court to protect his Unfollow Everything 2.0 extension from Facebook's ire

You've got to fight for your right to personalize

A professor has asked the US courts to confirm he has the right to release a browser extension to help people disengage with Facebook by automatically changing certain settings.

In a complaint filed on Wednesday in a Northern California federal court, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University asked the court on behalf of Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to affirm the legality of Unfollow Everything 2.0, a browser extension that makes it easier to stop following friends, groups, and pages on Facebook.

"I’m suing Facebook to make it better," said Zuckerman 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."

Specifically, the lawsuit seeks a declaration that Zuckerman's browser extension "does not violate Meta’s Terms of Service, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or California’s Computer Data Access and Fraud Act." It argues that through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, US lawmakers sought "to promote the development of filtering tools that enable users to curate their online experiences and avoid content they would rather not see."

Section 230 offers interactive computer services safe harbor from liability under certain conditions. It's been challenged in recent years by those who argue social media sites have been given too much latitude to avoid being accountable for distributing harmful user-generated content.

Zuckerman hopes his yet-to-be-released browser extension will free people from the algorithmically-optimized psychological pressure to engage with the Facebook newsfeed. It automates the cumbersome process of unfollowing Facebook users, groups, and pages.

As the lawsuit explains, there's growing public concern that the business model of social media, which seeks to keep people engaged so they see ads, is manipulative and harmful to public discourse.

"For example, many experts argue that the platforms' engagement-driven algorithms contribute to the spread of false, extreme, or polarizing content, while also stoking division and violence offline," the complaint says. "Many users want more control over their social media experiences, but the companies have largely refused to give it to them."

Based on those arguments, Meta is currently being sued by at least 33 US states and hundreds of US school districts for alleged mental harms suffered by children exposed to its social media services. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg was recently browbeaten into apologizing to social media victims at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Need to check with the lawyers

Unfollow Everything 2.0 hasn't been released because in 2021 Meta threatened to sue Louis Barclay, a UK-based developer who made a similar tool, Unfollow Everything. Barclay, who was banned from Facebook for life for his efforts, said via another social media service, "I'm absolutely over the moon at the news of this lawsuit."

The complaint notes that Meta has made similar legal threats against others, including the makers of the Friendly Social Browser and the NYU researchers involved with the Ad Observer project, which aimed to monitor social media advertising patterns. Thus, Amherst's Zuckerman seeks a declaration from the court that his tool is lawful.

Meta declined to comment.

Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman expressed skepticism about the complaint's prospects to The Register.

"The complaint raises important and interesting social, legal, and technical questions, none of which I expect the court to resolve," said Goldman, who writes regularly about Section 230.

"The case probably will be dismissed on procedural grounds for lack of 'standing.' Most likely, a court will say that Zuckerman's fears of possible future legal liability are currently insufficient for him to initiate a legal battle."

Jennifer Jones, staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, doesn't believe that will be an issue. "Professor Zuckerman has standing because he has a real and reasonable fear that Meta would sue him if he released Unfollow Everything 2.0," she told The Register.

"Meta has threatened other researchers for releasing similar tools, and it even threatened the developer of a nearly identical tool called Unfollow Everything."

The outcome of the case could have implications for other content filtering software, including content blocking applications. "Section 230 protects the development of tools that empower users of internet services to filter the content they see," explained Jones.

"This protection reflects Congress’s desire to allow people to control their online experiences. It would apply to tools that allow users to block harassing content, pornographic content, or any other kind of content that they would just prefer not to see online."

Goldman also questioned Zuckerman's plan to use his user empowerment tool for a second purpose, conducting research.

"While Zuckerman would surely follow ethical research practices, other researchers making identical legal arguments may pose significant cybersecurity and privacy risks that could worry a court," he explained.

"In contrast, if the only question in the lawsuit was whether it was legal to release a tool that helped Facebook users automatically unfollow other users, the case would not raise as many thorny policy questions."

A hopeless cause

Another concern of Goldman's is that the complaint fails to adequately deal with questions about whether Meta/Facebook might still block Unfollow Everything 2.0, even if Zuckerman prevailed in court.

"In other words, if the case resolves Zuckerman's legal questions, but Facebook can still exercise 'self-help' to protect its interests, what exactly would the case accomplish?" Goldman asked.

Meta already does so. In 2022, the social ad biz started encrypting the parameters it adds to its web links for tracking, to prevent privacy-oriented browsers and extensions from removing that information. And the social network has taken other steps that obfuscate its web page structure and deter data gathering.

YouTube similarly has admitted to running scripts to detect ad blocking tools – a practice challenged in Ireland – and it recently implemented changes that affect video performance when ad blocking tools are detected. So were Zuckerman to prevail, that wouldn't necessarily prevent Meta from changing its service to break Zuckerman's extension.

"Of course, Meta and other companies could try to frustrate the use of these tools through technical countermeasures, but there’s only so much they can do to control information that is ultimately presented on a user’s computer," opined Jones. ®

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