A researcher is suing Meta for the right to ‘turn off’ Facebook’s news feed

If successful, he’ll release a browser extension called “Unfollow Everything 2.0.”

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Facebook’s News Feed algorithm has long been at the center of debates about some of Meta’s biggest problems. It’s also been a near constant source of complaints from users. But, if a newly filed lawsuit is successful, Facebook users may be able to use the social network with a vastly different feed. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is suing Meta on behalf of a researcher who wants to release a browser extension that would allow people to “effectively turn off” their algorithmic feeds.

The extension was created by Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher and professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He argues that Facebook users would be better off with more control over their feeds. “The tool, called Unfollow Everything 2.0, would allow users to unfollow their friends, groups, and pages, and, in doing so, to effectively turn off their newsfeed—the endless scroll of posts that users see when they log into Facebook,” the lawsuit explains. “Users who download the tool would be free to use the platform without the feed, or to curate the feed by refollowing only those friends and groups whose posts they really want to see.” (Meta officially renamed the News Feed to “Feed” in 2022.)

Zuckerman isn’t the first to come up with such a tool. He was inspired by a similar project, also called “Unfollow Everything,” from 2021. Facebook sued the U.K man who created that extension and permanently disabled his account. Zuckerman is trying to avoid a similar fate with his lawsuit. The suit, filed in San Francisco federal court Wednesday, asks the court “to recognize that Section 230 protects the development of tools designed to empower people to better control their social media experiences.”

The case could be a novel test of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which is mostly known as the law that shields online platforms from legal liability for the actions of their users. But unlike recent Supreme Court cases involving the statute, Zuckerman’s case “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.”

A spokesperson for Meta declined to comment on the lawsuit. The company has a history of heavy-handed tactics when it comes to independent researchers. In addition to shutting down the earlier version “Unfollow Everything,” the company disabled the Facebook accounts of a group of NYU researchers attempting to study political ad targeting in 2021. Those types of tactics have led to some researchers pursuing “data donation” programs, which recruit volunteers to “donate” their own browsing data for academic studies.

If released, Zuckerman’s browser extension would also have a data donation component, allowing users to opt-in to sharing “anonymized data about their Facebook usage.” The data would then be used for research into the effects of Facebook’s feed algorithm.