May 01, 2024

By Brandi Geurkink

Today, Ethan Zuckerman (who is a board member of the Coalition for Independent Technology Research) filed a lawsuit seeking confirmation from a federal court in the northern district of California that building tools for public interest research on social media platforms like Facebook does not violate the law.

The Coalition for Independent Technology Research applauds this effort and its potential to provide more legal certainty for the broader community of public-interest technology researchers. The tool at the heart of the complaint, Unfollow Everything 2.0, was inspired by a tool created by Louis Barclay (who is also a Coalition member), and who received a cease-and-desist letter from Meta in July 2021 threatening legal action against him for his work. Louis’s tool enabled Facebook users to “turn off” the algorithmic feed and have more control over their experience—and to take part in a research study looking at the impacts of “turning off the feed” on people’s well-being.

The cease-and-desist letter that Facebook sent to Louis was part of an increasingly common strategy of technology companies using legal mechanisms to silence independent research. These legal challenges often center on the tools and data collection methods that researchers use to do their work, even when researchers employ industry best-practices on privacy and ethical fronts.

If successful, this lawsuit could counter the chilling effects that such legal threats have had on the field of independent technology researchers, providing greater legal certainty to those who build tools and research projects that help users understand the impacts social media platforms are having on an individual and a societal level. This proactive effort is essential for not only the public interest tech researchers of today, but also those who will be on the frontlines of investigating the impacts of emerging technologies into the future.