Do social media users have the right to control what they see — or don’t see — on their feeds?

A lawsuit filed against Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. is arguing that a federal law often used to shield internet companies from liability also allows people to use external tools to take control of their feed — even if that means shutting it off entirely.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Meta Platforms on behalf of an Amherst professor who wants to release a tool that enables users to unfollow all the content fed to them by Facebook’s algorithm.

The tool, called Unfollow Everything 2.0, is a browser extension that would let Facebook users unfollow friends, groups and pages and empty their newsfeed — the stream of posts, photos and videos that can keep them scrolling endlessly. The idea is that without this constant, addicting stream of content, people might use it less. If the past is any indication, Meta will not be keen on the idea.

A U.K. developer, Louis Barclay, released a similar tool, called Unfollow Everything, but he took it down in 2021, fearing a lawsuit after receiving a cease-and-desist letter and a lifetime Facebook ban from Meta, then called Facebook Inc.

With Wednesday’s lawsuit, Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is trying to beat Meta to the legal punch to avoid getting sued by the social media giant over the browser extension.

“The reason it’s worth challenging Facebook on this is that right now we have very little control as users over how we use these networks,” Zuckerman said in an interview. “We basically get whatever controls Facebook wants. And that’s actually pretty different from how the internet has worked historically.” Just think of email, which lets people use different email clients, or different web browsers, or anti-tracking software for people who don’t want to be tracked.

Meta declined to comment.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in California centers on a provision of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which is often used to protect internet companies from liability for things posted on their sites. A separate clause, though, provides immunity to software developers who create tools that “filter, screen, allow, or disallow content that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.”

The lawsuit, in other words, asks the court to determine whether Facebook users’ news feed falls into the category of objectionable material that they should be able to filter out in order to enjoy the platform.

“Maybe CDA 230 provides us with this right to build tools to make your experience of Facebook or other social networks better and to give you more control over them,” said Zuckerman, who teaches public policy, communication and information at Amherst. “And you know what? If we’re able to establish that, that could really open up a new sphere of research and a new sphere of development. You might see people starting to build tools to make social networks work better for us.”

While Facebook does allow users to manually unfollow everything, the process can be cumbersome with hundreds or even thousands of friends, groups and businesses that people often follow.

Zuckerman also wants to study how turning off the news feed affects people’s experience on Facebook. Users would have to agree to take part in the study — using the browser tool does not automatically enroll participants.

“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.”

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This story was first published on May 1, 2024. It was updated on May 5, 2024, to correct the spelling of the first name of a U.K. developer to Louis Barclay, not Luis Barclay.

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