SAN FRANCISCO—A California federal court judge today dismissed Elon Musk-led X’s claims that the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Inc. (CCDH) violated X’s terms of service when it used automated data collection—known as scraping—to inform research criticizing X for allowing what CCDH deemed disinformation to remain on the platform. 

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that private companies should not be allowed to wield breach of contract claims as a weapon to punish criticism, and to secure damages stemming solely from claimed reputational harm resulting from that criticism. 

“This is an important decision that sees Elon Musk’s lawsuit for what it is—an effort to punish his critics for constitutionally protected speech and to deter researchers from studying his platform,” said Alex Abdo, litigation director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “Society needs reliable and ethical research into social media platforms, and often that research relies on being able to study publicly available posts. Musk’s lawsuit imperiled that kind of research by threatening it with ruinous liability, but thankfully, the court shut down his case.” 

In this case, CCDH engaged in scraping to inform the public of instances when X failed to remove posts that CCDH deemed dis- and mis-information, despite evidence the content violated X’s content guidelines. X accused CCDH of obtaining its data illegally, and claimed that its reports drove advertisers away from the site. The groups argued in their brief, however, that scraping when done in the context of public interest research is part and parcel of the subsequent public interest speech it enables. 

The court dismissed X’s suit, writing in its opinion that efforts to use an anti-scraping contract term to bypass the high standard for defamation claims was impermissible and noting that the lawsuit was about punishing CCDH for its speech criticizing X.  

“The court’s ruling reaffirms that vital First Amendment protections apply to researchers and journalists who use digital tools like scraping to inform the public about the practices of powerful platforms,” said Esha Bhandari, deputy project director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.   

The speech of research organizations like CCDH as well as academics and journalists—in many instances made possible only by scraping—has shed necessary light on a panoply of concerns that powerful social media platforms have failed to independently monitor and correct, and has provided crucial information for regulators to take enforcement action. Such public interest research serves as a key accountability mechanism to reveal the platforms’ content moderation choices and privacy policies and practices.  

“The district court rightly saw through X's chilling attempt to twist the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and contract law to retaliate against a nonprofit that published critical reports regarding hateful content on X,” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The First Amendment and California's anti-SLAPP statute protect anyone who scrapes publicly available websites and publishes newsworthy information about the data.”

“This lawsuit was nothing more than a vain attempt to stymie independent research into an influential social media platform. The court’s decision today is a much-needed reminder that free speech includes the right to investigate and criticize Elon Musk and X,” said Jake Karr, deputy director of NYU’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic, which helped prepare the friend-of-the-court brief. “And it serves as a clear example for powerful corporations and individuals in the tech industry—it’s not so easy to abuse the U.S. legal system to silence criticism and evade public accountability.”

Learn more about the case and read the opinion here

For more information, contact: Adriana Lamirande, [email protected].