Yet Another Really Dumb Lawsuit Filed Against Meta Because Some People Who Did A Bad Thing May Have Met On Facebook

from the this-is-not-a-good-lawsuit dept

Everyone wants to blame internet companies for everything. A couple weeks back, a woman sued Meta over the death of her brother, claiming Facebook was to blame. This is the latest in a ridiculously long line of failed lawsuits that look to hold Facebook liable for the deaths of people, just because either the killers or people connected to them somehow communicated on social media. It’s like suing AT&T because two people plotting a crime spoke on the phone. These are nonsense lawsuits and they are nuisance lawsuits. This one is no different.

The underlying story here is tragic: two men, who were a part of the “boogaloo bois” (one of the many extremist groups who believe that a new civil war is coming, and that they need to help it along), killed a Federal Protective Services officer, Dave Patrick Underwood. They literally believed that this was part of the process to start this civil war. Its quite understandable while Underwood’s family would be furious about this, and the two murderers are going to be in prison for a long, long time.

But trying to demand money from Facebook?

The entire complaint argues that because the two murderers talked on Facebook, Facebook is somehow responsible. It tries to get around Section 230 by arguing that the murderers found each other due to Facebook’s algorithms, and somehow that gets around Section 230 (it doesn’t).

Facebook, as originally conceived, may have functioned like an enormous virtual bulletin board, where content was published by authors. But Facebook has evolved over time with the addition of numerous features and products designed by Meta to engage users. The earliest of these ? the search function and the ?like? button ? were user-controlled features. In more recent years, however, Meta has taken an active role in shaping the user-experience on the platform with more complex features and products that are not triggered by user requests. The most visible of these are curated recommendations, which are pushed to each user in a steady stream as the user navigates the website and in notifications sent to the user?s smartphone and email addresses when the user is off-platform. These proprietary Facebook products include News Feed (a newsfeed of stories and posts published on the platform, some of which are posted by your Facebook friends or members of groups you have joined, and others that are suggested for you by Facebook), People You May Know (introductions to persons with common connections or background), and Suggested for You, Groups You Should Join, and Discover (recommendations for Facebook groups to join).

These curated and bundled recommendations are developed through sophisticated algorithms. As distinguished from the earliest search functions that were used to navigate websites during the Internet?s infancy, Meta?s algorithms are not based exclusively on user requests or even user inputs. Meta?s algorithms combine the user?s profile (e.g., the information posted by the user on the platform) and the user?s dossier (the data collected and synthesized by Meta to which Meta assigns categorical designations), make assumptions about that user?s interests and preferences, make predictions about what else might appeal to the user, and then make very specific recommendations of posts and pages to view and groups to visit and join based on rankings that will optimize Meta?s key performance indicators.

This is a variation on the “algorithmic recommendations don’t deserve 230 protections” argument. There are efforts in Congress to make that explicit, but it’s nonsensical — in large part because recommendations are protected by the 1st Amendment. So even if you got past the Section 230 issue, you’re still killed by the 1st Amendment.

And the lawsuit here more or less admits that by saying that these are all opinions:

Meta?s algorithms are carefully protected intellectual property. While they are often characterized as automated and impersonal, they are, in actuality, dynamic and subject to frequent refinement. They also reflect the inferences, judgments, priorities, and decision-making of human programmers, managers, and executives at Meta.

Specifically, they’re arguing “negligent design” — an argument that has been tried repeatedly in 230 cases and fails.

In 2017, Meta changed its mission to giving ?people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.?

To accomplish this new mission, Meta redesigned its social media platform and its recommendation algorithms to promote and emphasize user engagement in hobby clubs, civil society organizations, and other community groups.

Meta built a superstructure to support groups, built algorithms to recruit members for those groups, and built algorithms that created an insular world view for members of those groups.

In an interview with CNN, CEO Zuckerberg recognized the real world implications of achieving its goal to expand group membership on its platform: ?Once people are coming together in these smaller groups, that actually grows and it ends up with much bigger changes in the world.?

Meta knew or should have known that these changes in the world could very well be negative?even dangerous and harmful to the public?as demonstrated by its own internal research.

I mean, this claim alone actually does a good job of demonstrating why Section 230 is so important in two different ways. First, the whole reason that Facebook changed its efforts towards focusing on community was in response to people freaking out about the 2016 election and misinformation. Facebook took those concerns and tried to respond to them by saying it was changing its emphasis away from news — in the hopes that this would lessen things like the impact on elections — and towards community. And yet here, they’re being blamed for that attempt (weak as it may have been) to improve their service.

Basically, this shows how any decision on how to run your platform will be second guessed, and (if you’re big enough) someone will sue you over it. The very nature of Section 230 is that it allows for these kinds of changes and experimentation to figure out what’s best, and recognizes that it’s a constant need for adjusting and adapting.

The second reason why this highlights the importance of Section 230 is that 230 is useful in getting these cases kicked out of court quickly, as they should be. Because without Section 230, this case is still a complete loser.

The entire basis of the lawsuit is that because these men met on Facebook, and then later decided to kill someone, Facebook is somehow to blame for the murder. But under that theory, if two people meet at a bowling alley, or a bar, or a restaurant, and later commit a crime, you could hold those meeting places liable? That’s ridiculous and clearly cannot fly. Section 230 is helpful in getting such obviously bogus lawsuits kicked out early. Without 230, Facebook still wins this case, but it’s just a lot more expensive.

This is a nonsense lawsuit and the lawyers who filed it should be embarrassed. The underlying story is sad, and I feel terrible for the family, but the decision to sue here is a bad one that will not end well.

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Companies: facebook, meta

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Comments on “Yet Another Really Dumb Lawsuit Filed Against Meta Because Some People Who Did A Bad Thing May Have Met On Facebook”

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11 Comments
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Unfortunately for the rest of us…

this highlights the importance of Section 230 is that 230 is useful in getting these cases kicked out of court quickly, as they should be. Because without Section 230, this case is still a complete loser.

Yet like Disney using the public domain to make itself rich but delaying Mickey Mouse’s entrance into the public domain by decades, Facebook benefits immensely from §230, a law that helps everyone, and yet is adamant on its repeal.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Unfortunately for the rest of us…

That unfortunately is all too easy to explain, as as much as Facebook benefits from 230 they’ve come to realize that platforms that would compete with them rely on it more and that unlike those other platforms Facebook could survive a gutted or repealed 230.

Losing 230 protections would be bad for Facebook but it would be devastating for smaller platforms and services that might compete(either currently or in the future) with them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lawyer law, clients sue

There is a case for lawyers paying the costs of the defense. But that case is limited to where a) the lawyers are the ones themselves bringing the suit, or b) the suit is so baseless or frivolous the lawyer should have declined to file it. Everything else is on the wallet of the client. Doesn’t mean that bad lawyering doesn’t get sanctioned on its own accord, though.

For instance, the Trump Lawyer Fans lawsuit, the Steven Biss baseless amended complaint, the Liebowitz saga lawsuits, a few cases of patent malpractice and so on. It’s where the lawyer that is the one misbehaving, where the lawyer himself gets the axe.

Anonymous Coward says:

A caveat: claims like negligent design usually fail as a component of lawsuits against such sites. The mess of a lawsuit against Grokster (as well as a handful of other suits since) had a lot of ways of saying "but the law should be different", and the court went ahead and ruled that, rather than respecting the law and leaving the site up while going after individual sharers, they would create new standards (the constitutional prohibition on Ex Post Facto laws applies only to congress, not to the courts) and torpedo the site regardless of existing law at the time.

It’s rare, but it does happen. A number of cases seem to make these claims in the hopes that a court will once more take it upon itself to change the law, but it always seems to me like a bad gamble given the rarity with which any court will actually do so. But the odds are not zero, and that is always disconcerting.

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