SAN FRANCISCO—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ethan Zuckerman—a professor of Public Policy, Communication and Information at the University of Massachusetts Amherst—asking the court to recognize that Section 230 protects the development of tools designed to empower people to better control their social media experiences. Zuckerman would like to release a tool he’s calling Unfollow Everything 2.0, which would give Facebook users the ability to escape the platform’s engagement-driven newsfeed, but he hasn’t yet done so out of fear that Meta will sue him.

“I’m suing Facebook to make it better. The major social media companies have too much control over what content their users see and don’t see,” said Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “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.”

Professor Ethan Zuckerman is a media scholar, software developer, and policy advocate who has dedicated his career to studying the civic and social roles of internet platforms. He has a long-standing interest in empowering and informing users of online platforms, and views third-party tools that operate at the explicit direction of social media users as a particularly promising avenue.

Unfollow Everything 2.0 is a browser extension that would allow Facebook users to more efficiently unfollow friends, groups, and pages, and, in doing so, to effectively turn off their newsfeeds. It would also enable people to donate their data to Zuckerman’s research study exploring how increasing people’s control over their online experience affects their behavior and well-being. In 2021, Meta (then-Facebook) sent an aggressive cease-and-desist letter to a U.K.-based developer named Louis Barclay, based on his development of a very similar tool, called Unfollow Everything. As he explained in an op-ed at the time, Barclay ultimately took down his tool rather than risk being sued. Zuckerman now hopes to release Unfollow Everything 2.0, but he anticipates that Meta would threaten to sue him, too.

“Social media companies can design their products as they want to, but users have the right to control their experience on social media platforms, including by blocking content they consider to be harmful,” said Ramya Krishnan, senior staff attorney at the Knight Institute. “Users don’t have to accept Facebook as it’s given to them. The same statute that immunizes Meta from liability for the speech of its users gives users the right to decide what they see on the platform.”

While much of the public debate around Section 230 centers around the provision that affords broad legal protection to social media platforms, today’s lawsuit relies on a separate provision protecting the developers of third-party tools that allow people to curate what they see online, including by blocking content they consider objectionable.  

Read today’s complaint here.

Lawyers on the case, in addition to Krishnan, include Alex Abdo, Jennifer Jones, and Nicole Mo, for the Knight First Amendment Institute, and Max Schoening for Qureshi Law.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, [email protected]