Public Figures, Private Law: Facebook Oversight Board Upholds Initial Removal of President’s Statements and Presence but Condemns Facebook’s Failure to Articulate Standards or Time Limits


Case No. 2021 -001 – FB – FBR.  Facebook Oversight Board, May 5, 2021.


Facebook is an online social media platform that welcomes all except those determined to have acted badly according to its internal standards, which are described generally in its Terms of Service, with which users promise compliance.   For the errant poster, Facebook may administer rebukes, suspend or terminate service, as well as removing content it deems unsuitable. 

Facebook thus administers and enforces rules of its own making by its own employees.  In light of persistent concerns about this insularity, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg created a board of review, funded by Facebook but administered independently.  

This week the Facebook Oversight Board issued an opinion unsigned by its constellation of prominent international figures that concluded that Facebook did not err in removing statements of then-President Donald J. Trump at the time of and concerning violence that erupted on January 6, 2021 in the nation’s Capitol following a rally of Trump supporters.  

While correct in the immediacy of its removal and ban in light of the circumstances at the time, in which the then-President’s words were perceived to have incited insurrection, the Facebook Oversight Board condemned Facebook’s failure to articulate the reasons and applicable standards supporting the removal and ban and the apparent eternal silencing of Facebook account holder Trump.  

The Facebook Oversight Board sent the case back to Facebook for further proceedings. 

The decision is no small matter and some have deemed it a landmark of equal stature with Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803), the first enunciation by the United States Supreme Court of its reason for being and its power of judicial review.  

This proceeding can be seen as a foundational attempt to provide some structure for review of platform provider’s decisions.  

This matters greatly (“bigly”, some might say) because internet service providers are almost entirely immune from suit for questionable decisions and at the same time the government of the United States cannot intervene to regulate online speech as it is constrained by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  

Section 230:  the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly. When widespread public adoption of the internet was in its infancy, Congress sought to inhibit unprotected speech while protecting internet service providers from liability for statements not of their own creation posted on platforms.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 preempts federal law and precludes suit against any platform provider who does not create content.  The platform is free to remove or to otherwise police its product without losing those immunities.  

This would leave a user without recourse unless the platform’s actions could be challenged in court in contract, which in limited measure can be done, or through internal review with the platform provider, as is the case in this week’s opinion.

The creation of an international body not necessarily bound by the laws of any one nation cannot be other than a major inflection point in modern law.  Prominent First Amendment authorities question whose law should govern such cases.  

It is far too soon to tell whether this new thing is a good thing, and much is lost in cheers and jeers attaching to personalities, whether that of the former President or of the founder and CEO of Facebook.  What is to the Facebook Oversight Board’s credit is that the reviewing body articulated not only the facts determined but also the standards embraced.  The virtue of its reliance on standards drawn from international human rights declarations, which remain aspirational domestically if not adopted by the United States, awaits further reflection.  

Links to the decision and to other materials are posted below. 

The Facebook Oversight Board opinion:  

2021 001 FB FBR Oversight Board Opinion

The Facebook Oversight Board announcement and overview of its opinion:

Oversight Board Upholds Trump Suspension While Finding Facebook Failed to Apply Proper Penalty

The composition of the Oversight Board:

Facebook Oversight Board

A primer on the creation of the Oversight Board and a reflection on this week’s opinion:

Lawfareblog: About the Facebook Oversight Board

Lawfareblog: It’s Not Over: Oversight Board Trump Decision is Just the Start

Reflections on jurisprudential questions prompted by the Facebook Oversight Board determination:

Volokh Conspiracy: Whose Rules Should Govern How Americans Speak with Other Americans Online

Responses to announcement of the decision and opinion in the mainstream media:

Facebook Oversight Board Tells Zuckerberg He’s the Decider on Trump – The New York Times

Trump Is Still Banned on YouTube. Now the Clock Is Ticking. – WSJ

Facebook Oversight Board’s Trump Decision was Marbury v Madison Moment – CNBC

Two recent cases discussing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996:

Daniels v Alphabet Inc ND Cal 2021

Murphy v Twitter Inc Cal App 2021

Discussions of United States’ positions on international human rights conventions:

Where the United States Stands on 10 International Human Rights Treaties – The Leadership Conference Education Fund

Human Rights and the United States

Public commentary on the controversy submitted to the Facebook Oversight Board:

Facebook Oversight Board Public Comments

School Is Out! Or Is It? Supreme Court to Consider School’s Constitutional Capacity to Discipline Student’s Off-Site Online Speech


Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., et al., No. 20-255 (S. Ct.).  Oral argument scheduled for April 28, 2021 at 10 a.m.


Student B.L., who was all in on cheerleading activities, was distressed to learn that a less senior student had jumped the line to the varsity squad, while she, with a year’s experience to her credit, remained on the junior varsity squad.  As is normative among digital natives, B.L. made her views known online on the social media application Snapchat.  B.L. did not have a good word to say, and indeed she used some words that a grandmother might kindly term “unladylike.”

Soon thereafter the school was abuzz with the news of B.L.’s postings.  School administrators, displeased with her having posted material that it considered disrespectful and disruptive of school and school-related activities, determined that she ought to sit the cheerleading season out.  This was fiercely protested by B.L. and her family.  The school would not budge, and this case, which questions how much off-site speech a school may discipline, ensued.

During the Viet Nam War, students protesting the United States’ participation in that conflict came to school wearing black arm bands to signify their disagreement.  When a school tried to countermand this activity, the Supreme Court disciplined the school instead.  In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, et al, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Court concluded that minor students are not without Constitutional rights, including speech and expressive rights.  Schools may not interfere with students’ speech and expressive activities except where the ordinary activity of the school or the rights of others may be substantially disrupted thereby.

Life today is no longer constrained geographically as in the past.  Communication is instant online and that communication may reach an audience any time and any where.   Boundaries as they once were known are no more, leaving schools to wonder how they might navigate the shoals of order and expression.

The petitioning school district argues that it was error for the trial and appellate courts to interpret Tinker as inapplicable to off-site activity.  Schools, responsible for so much of students’ lives in the day to day, must be able to maintain civility when offsite online behavior interferes with order or threatens others.

B.L. counters that the First Amendment rights recognized in Tinker would be meaningless if students, fearful of condemnation and harsh consequences from school authorities, were not able to communicate online as they would wish.

The United States, as amicus with a bit more clout than many other amici, while favoring the school’s position, suggests that there are several lenses with which to evaluate the interests of the parties, but asks the Supreme Court to return the case to the lower courts for further developments.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Joint Appendix

Mahanoy Area School District v B.L., No. 20-255 Brief for Respondents

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 Reply Brief for Petitioner

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 United States’ Amicus Curiae Brief

Pour l’instant, ils ne parlent pas: Federal Judge Denies Social Media Platform Parler’s Request that Amazon Web Services Restore Its Service

Parler LLC v, Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031-BJR (W.D. Wash). Order denying preliminary injunctive relief entered January 21, 2021.


A federal court in Washington has denied Parler’s request that Amazon Web Services (AWS) be  ordered to resume web hosting service to social media platform Parler.  

 

The court found that the standards for preliminary injunctive relief, particularly with respect to a likelihood of success on the merits, had not been met. 

 

First, the court found that Parler had not established that it would prevail on an antitrust claim, as neither an agreement between AWS and Twitter, nor a restraint of trade had been shown. AWS has insisted no contact between AWS and competitor Twitter had occurred.   

 

Second, AWS’s pursuit of lawful remedies, such as might be found in the parties’ agreement,  cannot support a claim for tortious interference with business.  

 

Third, Parler was not substantially likely to prevail on its contract claim where Parler was admittedly in breach of its agreement with AWS and suspension or termination was a consequence of a breach under the parties’ agreement.  

 

Counsel admitted at hearing that damages could make Parler whole, making it impossible to perceive that irreparable harm would ensue if an injunction was not issued.  

 

The balance of equities did not favor Parler, as it was admittedly in breach of its contract with AWS. 

 

The court noted that AWS had offered evidence that AWS did not treat Parler and Twitter differently on the same facts, for different services are provided to each company.  

 

Finally, the court noted that no policy supports compelling AWS to provide a platform for speech that might incite violence.

 

Parler LLC v Amazon Web Services 2 21-cv-0031 BJR Order Denying Preliminary Injunction

“Sure sounds like a termination.”–Judge in Parler Dispute With Amazon Web Services Appears to Appreciate Impact, But Questions Need for Injunctive Relief

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031(BJR) (W.D. Wash). Argument concerning injunctive relief held January 14, 2021.


Today the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington heard arguments concerning whether Amazon Web Services (AWS) ought to be ordered to restore service to Parler, LLC, whose site was deplatformed on short notice provided on January 9 because, AWS believed, Parler was not ably managing removal of unacceptable content in compliance with its agreement with Amazon.

 

Counsel for Amazon downplayed any non-compliance on Amazon’s part, asserting that Parler had not and could not comply with its obligations whether AWS  had suspended or terminated Parler.

 

AWS noted that as of January 6, 2021, what had been long feared became painfully real in the attacks at the U.S. Capitol. AWS perceived a need for action.  

 

Amazon Web Services noted that AWS’ actions respecting Twitter differ from its actions with Parler because Amazon Web Services does not access or engage with Twitter’s live feed as it does with Parler.

 

Parler submitted that losses to Parler are irreparable.  Advertisers, the site’s sole revenue source, no longer provide income, and fifteen million account holders no longer can access Parler.

 

Although Parler offered that just recently Parler had been discussing adopting AWS’ software and obtaining venture capital, no counsel present would opine concerning whether their respective clients would be interested in further discussions.

 

Parler has admitted that some harms might be remedied by money damages, but pointed to the immediate present losses of income and customers as worthy of injunctive redress.

 

On inquiry by the court, counsel for Parler did not articulate a present emergency which would justify injunctive relief.

 

The court, without elaboration, promised its order would issue promptly.

Parler Resists War of Words with Amazon Web Services and Insists Parler Will Likely Go Out of Business Absent Judicial Intervention

Parler, LLC v Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031-BJR (W.D. Wash,).  Telephone conference with court set for 10 a.m. PST on January 14, 2021.


In Reply to Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Opposition to Parler’s Motion for Injunctive Relief, Parler argues that AWS miscasts termination as suspension, a position negated by AWS’ statement to Parler that Parler could do nothing to be restored to service.

 

Parler offers that AWS never advised Parler what contractual obligation Parler had allegedly breached. Most significantly, AWS breached the contract by failing to adhere to the thirty day period before termination the agreement requires.

 

AWS has always been aware of, and never questioned, Parler’s proactive practices concerning problematic posts, which are reactive and use a jury system issues with posts.  Parler envisioned moving to prospective artificial intelligence screening in the coming year. Moreover, AWS expressed interest in Parler’s adoption of AWS’ proprietary software, an arrangement which, if consummated, would essentially marry the two entities.

 

Parler states that it has always responded to any posting issues presented to it by AWS.  When competitor Twitter terminated Donald Trump’s account and created a Parler account, mass migration from Twitter to Parler caused Parler not only to crash but to face a backlog of troublesome posts.

 

Parler worked diligently to address problematic material, advising AWS of its progress, and was all but finished with the backlog when AWS terminated service to Parler.

 

Parler notes that no one arrested in connection with the January 6th violence in the U.S. Capitol had a Parler account, An individual killed there had an account that was dormant since November.  The posting of videos by account holders does not establish that the poster was present at the Capitol.

 

Parler argues that AWS has succumbed to pressure to suppress conservative speech as well as to deny the President social media access. 

 

Parler further argues that AWS has unlawfully preferenced the bigger and wealthier Twitter, ensuring Twitter’s market dominance by forcing Parler out of business.

 

Surely AWS can be seen as having interfered with business relationships, Parler argues, as AWS’ termination of Parler interfered with Parler’s relationships with every one of its fifteen million users.

 

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not operate as a bar to an antitrust action:  Section 230 immunizes speech, not anticompetitive conduct, which the Ninth Circuit has recognized.

 

Parler states that AWS’ termination has made it difficult for Parler to find a new web hosting partner, making it likely that Parler will go out of business absent judicial intervention.  

 

If the court fails to enjoin AWS, Parler submits, AWS’ termination will likely be fatal to Parler, but an injunction will require only that AWS provide services as required in its contract with Parler, balancing the equities in Parler’s favor.

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031 (W.D. Wash.). Parler Reply (2021-01-13)

 

It’s not us, it’s them: Amazon Web Services States Parler’s Breach of Agreement with AWS Permitted Suspension, Denies Antitrust Violation, and Claims Immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996

Parler, LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031 (BJR) (W.D. Wash.). Opposition to motion for injunction filed January 12, 2021.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) has opposed Parler’s motion for injunctive relief, asserting that its agreement with Parler permitted AWS to suspend or terminate Parler because of repeated troubling postings after the November election and after the January 6th eruption of violence in the Capitol.

 

AWS states that its agreement with Parler specifically permits the actions that it took. Amazon Web Services states that Parler was slow or failed to remedy threatening postings, and that when tens of thousands of posts went unaddressed, AWS was within its contractual rights to terminate or suspend Parler

 

Parler cannot state a claim for tortious interference with business relationships in the absence of a breach of contract, AWS reasons.  AWS states that Parler has not in fact been harmed, given Parler’s assertion that it would be offline for only half a day.

 

AWS argues that Parler cannot state a claim for violation of the Sherman Act where there is no evidence of any anti-competitive communication, let alone agreement, between AWS and Parler’s competitor Twitter.  Any difference in treatment between Parler and Twitter by AWS exists because of differences in AWS’s agreements with the two entities. 

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, AWS asserts that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 immunizes AWS from liability for any actions it has taken to remove offensive or harmful material from Parler, including suspension or termination..  The immunities conferred by Section 230 preclude Parler’s claims for breach of contract and anticompetitive conduct, AWS argues.

 

AWS states that injunctive relief is inappropriate where an injunction would inhibit or preclude AWS from entering into or policing its agreements.

 

AWS has submitted redacted copies of allegedly problematic postings from Parler and has submitted, with a request that they remain under seal, unredacted copies of such material.

 

Parler may submit a response today. At this writing no time for oral argument has been established.

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2.21-cv-00031 (W.D. Wash.) Opposition to Motion for Injunction

David Versus Goliath (and Goliath). Parler Challenges Amazon Web Services’ Suspension as Anti-Competitive and in Breach of Contract

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No 2:21-cv-00031 (BJR) (W.D. Wash.) Verified Complaint filed January 11, 2021.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) has suspended webhosting services to Parler, a relative newcomer to the social media marketplace because, AWS has stated, AWS doubts Parler’s capacity to monitor postings that incite violence.

 

AWS suspended  Parler almost immediately after Parler’s competitor Twitter permanently terminated the account of Donald J Trump.  This  termination prompted a mass migration of customers from Twitter to Parler as well as a significant spike in new customers. 

 

AWS towers above other web hosting services globally.  By comparison with the shuttered Parler, Parler observes that AWS has promised Twitter timeline and enhanced services.

 

Parler asserts in its Complaint in federal court in Washington that because of the suspension, which Parler says has been presented like a termination, AWS has irreparably damaged Parler’s business and reputation.  

 

Even if Parler is able to find another platform, Parler avers, the time and other costs associated with rewriting Parler’s AWS-compatible code will be extraordinary.

 

Parler alleges that AWS’ agreement to enhance services to Twitter while forcing Parler from the marketplace violates the Sherman Antitrust Act. 

 

Parler also asserts that by effectively terminating Parler without the thirty day’s notice required by the agreement between the two, AWS has breached its agreement with Parler.  

 

Parler denies any breach of its agreement with AWS, stating that it removed any allegedly unacceptable comments that AWS brought to Parler’s attention.  Parler observes that similar content has been retained without comment on Twitter.

 

Briefing concerning injunctive relief will close January 13th.  A time for oral argument has not been set.

Parler LLC v. Amazon Web Services, No. 2:21-cv-00031 (W.D. Wash.) Verified Complaint