No, Facebook's Argument In Response To Muslim Advocates' Lawsuit Is Not 'Awkward'; Facebook Caving On 230 Is What's Awkward
from the so-much-silliness dept
Mother Jones has a slightly weird article saying that Facebook is making an “awkward legal argument” in a lawsuit that was filed against the company by Muslim Advocates, arguing that Facebook and its executives lied to Congress when it insisted that the company would remove hate speech. There’s a lot to unpack here, though I’d note that there are two things I find awkward here — and neither of them are Facebook’s legal arguments in the case. The real awkwardness is Muslim Advocates trying to argue that Facebook failing to remove certain content violates consumer protection laws. The second awkward bit is Facebook’s constant political posturing about its openness to Section 230 reform.
Let’s dig into the case, though. The complaint from Muslim Advocates (and filed by a lawyer who is a long-term critic of Section 230) is fairly straightforward. It says that Facebook’s execs have testified before Congress that the company removes content that violates its policies. Yet, when Muslim Advocates alerted the company to content that it believed violated Facebook’s policies, the company did not always remove it. Ergo (the complaint says), it means that Facebook’s execs lied to Congress… and somehow that violates DC’s consumer protection laws.
There’s plenty here to roll your eyes about. There is no doubt that (tragically) there is plenty of hate speech on Facebook directed at Muslims (and many other groups). It is also true that content moderation is impossible to do well at scale, and that (1) mistakes will be made and (2) lots of people will disagree with Facebook’s interpretation of its own rules. And just because Facebook testifies that if it becomes aware of content that violates its policies, it will take it down, if someone else believes that content violates Facebook’s policies, but Facebook doesn’t take it down, that does not mean that Facebook lied to Congress. It just means that there are differing interpretations of Facebook’s policies, and Facebook is the one who gets to have the final say on that.
The lawsuit, obviously, argues otherwise. I find that argument to be kinda silly. And, if it actually wins the day in court, it would be tremendously problematic for the open internet. Enabling basically anyone to sue a company for not taking down content that the person (but not the company) believes violates policies is a recipe for (1) a ton of frivolous, wasteful litgation and (2) the creation of a near automatic heckler’s veto for almost any content online. That would be very, very bad.
Also, the specific claims are kinda weird. How is it a “consumer protection” violation? Well, according to the lawsuit:
The CPPA establishes a right to truthful information from merchants about the consumer goods and services that they provide to people in the District of Columbia.
And thus, because this group claims Facebook lied to Congress, that somehow means that it did not provide “truthful information… about the consumer goods and services they provide.” That… is a huge stretch. There are also claims of fraudulent and negligent misrepresentations.
Facebook has responded with two separate motions to dismiss. One is a typical 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failing to state a legitimate claim. The second is a separate motion to dismiss under DC’s anti-SLAPP law. There are lots of interesting arguments made in both of those filings (some of which overlap), but the crux of the defense is exactly as you’d expect: (1) no one at Facebook said that they’d be perfect in moderating and (2) if Facebook disagrees with some 3rd party about whether or not some content violates Facebook’s policies, that’s not evidence of any lie.
Billions of people use social media to express themselves, which means that content reflecting the full range of human experience finds expression on platforms like Facebook Facebook agrees with Plaintiff Muslim Advocates that anti-Muslim hate speech is vile, and devotes significant resources to keeping such abuse off its platform based on Community Standards that outline what is and is not allowed on Facebook. Enforcement of the Community Standards requires being aware of potentially violating content, ether through Facebook’s own efforts or reports by third parties, and making judgments as to whether that content should be removed as violating the Community Standards. As Facebook has candidly acknowledged, these judgments are subject to disagreement and error, but Facebook remains committed to making its service a place where people feel safe to share with others and express themselves.
Managing a global community in this way has never been done before. Facebook is committed to continuing to improve its enforcement efforts and believes that means engaging Congress and other stakeholders to share and seek input on its policies and practices. As part of this ongoing dialogue, Facebook executives have testified before Congress regarding the Community Standards,
The part of the defense that caught Mothers Jones’ interest is that Facebook (correctly) note that this lawsuit is clearly barred under Section 230. And that does seem pretty clear. It’s not awkward at all.
…all of Plaintiff’s claims are barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230 (?CDA?), because they seek to impose liability on Facebook for not removing third-party content that Plaintiff believes should be removed. Plaintiff attempts to plead around the CDA by bringing misrepresentation claims, but it is clear from the Complaint that Plaintiff is challenging Facebook’s alleged failure to remove certain third-party content that Plaintiff believes violates the Community Standards. These are editorial decisions that go to the core of conduct protected by the CDA.
Mother Jones claims that this is an awkward legal argument because of Facebook’s openness to reforming Section 230. But, even for those of us who don’t trust Facebook’s proposal for reform, there is no indication at all that if Facebook got what it wanted out of 230 reform that this case wouldn’t still be barred by it. Facebook’s reform proposal is basically that if it engages in best practices regarding content moderation, it still gets 230 protections. And even if Muslim Advocates disagrees, Facebook can make a pretty strong case that it engages in “best practices” regarding content moderation. Indeed, Facebook’s proposal also made clear that no reform should punish a company for missing any particular pieces of content.
So, there’s nothing in Facebook’s legal arguments that goes against its own advocacy regarding 230 reform. So it’s difficult to say why that legal argument is “awkward.” It’s not. It’s just Mother Jones trying to spin this into a story — which is pretty disappointing. Especially considering that Mother Jones has been so active in the good fight for stronger and better anti-SLAPP laws which (as the other filing in this case shows) would protect Facebook here, since this lawsuit seems (also) to be an attempt to punish Facebook and its execs for their speech at Congressional hearings (which is a classic kind of SLAPP situation).
If anything, the “awkward” part is why is Facebook continuing to be so willing to throw Section 230 under the bus, when cases like this (and so many others) show why it totally makes sense and does what it needs to do in making sure that websites can moderate without fear of facing liability for their many, many difficult subjective choices. Of course, we all know the real reason Facebook is doing this: because the politics of the day means that it has to “give” something here since so many people are mad at the company, and Facebook has (unfortunately, probably correctly) realized that if it undermines 230, it can do so in a manner that Facebook can survive, and its smaller competitors cannot.
The rest of the motions to dismiss are worth reading as well, as they deftly call out the silliness of the complaint, including the fact that when Facebook execs say that they remove content that violates policies, that is only after (1) they’re aware of it and (2) they, themselves, determine if the content actually violated the policies, something that is inherently subjective:
Contrary to Plaintiff’s assertion that Facebook executives represented in Congressional testimony that Facebook removes all content that violates the Community Standards, that testimony makes clear that enforcement of the Community Standards depends on Facebook being aware of potentially violating content and making judgments that are subject to disagreement and error.
As for the argument that this is a consumer protection issue, Facebook notes that that law is about the sale of products, which just doesn’t apply here at all:
Plaintiff cannot state any claim under the CPPA because it regulates conduct arising out of consumer-merchant relationships, and Plaintiff does not, and cannot, allege any such relationship with Facebook, or that the alleged misrepresentations were made in connection with the sale of goods or services to Plaintiff or anyone else.
As noted, there’s a lot more detail in the filings that is worth reading, but this should give you the gist of both sides of the argument. This lawsuit seems an unfortunately silly one by Muslim Advocates, and frankly undermines the work that the organization does. And, if Facebook wins the anti-SLAPP argument (which is certainly possible), then the organization might even end up on the hook for Facebook’s (I’m sure quite expensive, given the multiple well known lawyers it has working on this case) legal bills.
There is one separate thing that is probably worth noting in this case: it does have some similarities to the somewhat infamous Barnes v. Yahoo case in the 9th Circuit, in which the court ruled that via “promissory estoppel,” a plaintiff could get around Section 230. In that case, the plaintiff spoke to someone at Yahoo who promised them they would remove some content, but then did not. In that case, the court said that once an employee promised the plaintiff that the content would be removed, the company loses the 230 protections.
However, this case strikes me as notably different in multiple ways (and, of course, is not bound by an already problematic 9th Circuit ruling, since it’s in DC superior court). In Barnes, there were not only specific pieces of content that the plaintiff alerted Yahoo to, but then the employee told the plaintiff that the company would “take care of” that content. So that was the promise. Here, the plaintiffs are trying to take broad statements regarding Facebook’s content moderation practices to Congress and trying to say that this constituted some sort of binding promise to never be wrong or never disagree with Muslim Advocates’ own subjective opinion. And that’s just silly.
So, in the end, we have an awkward basic legal argument from Muslim Advocates, and an awkward bit of political posturing by Facebook with its publicity campaign to “reform” Section 230. What is not awkward at all is Facebook’s legal response to this silly lawsuit.