Policy

Developer says Facebook banned him over his 'Unfollow Everything' tool

The browser extension, which was also being used for research, helped Facebook users clear their News Feeds by unfollowing, well, everything.

A sign displaying a Facebook "like" symbol across a street

Facebook banned another developer over an extension meant to fight Facebook addiction.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

A developer named Louis Barclay said Facebook permanently banned his account in response to a browser extension he created. The extension, called simply Unfollow Everything, made Facebook less addictive by helping users automatically unfollow everything in their News Feeds, Barclay said, and was also being used by Swiss researchers to study the connection between Facebook use and happiness.

Facebook's legal team at Perkins Coie sent a cease-and-desist letter in July that accused Barclay of facilitating "unauthorized functionality on Facebook" including "mass following and unfollowing." The letter also cited Facebook's terms of use, which prohibit using Facebook's trademarks, accessing user content by "automated means," interfering with "the intended operation of Facebook" and "facilitating or encouraging others to violate terms."

At the time, Barclay said, the extension had about 13,000 downloads and about 2,500 weekly active users. Barclay, who runs another tech startup and built Unfollow Everything as an unpaid side project, told Protocol he noticed he was banned from Facebook hours before he received the letter or learned the reason why. "I felt like maybe something really bad was going to happen, like maybe I was going to go broke because Facebook was going to sue me or something like that," Barclay remembered.

That hasn't happened, but the incident does add to mounting evidence about how Facebook often enforces its terms of service against developers who seek to study or to improve upon the Facebook experience. Researchers at New York University were similarly barred from the platform after creating a browser extension that collected targeting information from Facebook political ads. Facebook charged the researchers with violating their terms against data scraping, which Facebook argues were put in place to protect user privacy.

Facebook didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment.

Barclay's story, which he shared for the first time Thursday in an essay on Slate, comes on the heels of whistleblower Frances Haugen's testimony before the Senate Tuesday, in which she called on Congress to require more data transparency of tech companies so researchers and lawmakers can actually study platforms like Facebook without relying on leaks. "Facebook hides behind walls that keep researchers and regulators from understanding the true dynamics of their system," Haugen said. "Facebook will tell you privacy means they can't give you data — this is not true."

Facebook has at times cited its past settlement with the FTC as evidence of why it must keep user data under lock and key. But after Facebook leaned on that rationale to justify its crackdown on the NYU team, FTC acting director Samuel Levine said that insinuation is "inaccurate."

"The FTC is committed to protecting the privacy of people, and efforts to shield targeted advertising practices from scrutiny run counter to that mission," Levine wrote. "Indeed, the FTC supports efforts to shed light on opaque business practices, especially around surveillance-based advertising."

Rep. Lori Trahan has introduced legislation that would require social media companies to give more data to academics, and Stanford professor Nate Persily has floated a similar idea.

As a non-academic, Barclay wouldn't necessarily benefit from those laws. But Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at Knight First Amendment Institute who is advising Barclay, said Congress should also take a closer look at how tech companies are "squashing user choice, including through heavy-handed terms of service."

For now, Barclay is short on legal options. As a U.K. citizen, he would be required to pay the other side's legal fees should he sue and lose, a risk he said he's not willing to take. "I'd like to try to get some kind of justice," he said. "I'm still not clear on how to do it."

Podcasts

Crypto’s big crash

Is the tech superbubble about to burst?

red and blue light streaks
Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

This week, we're diving into the crypto crash. What led luna to fall off a cliff? Are we seeing the dot-com bust, part two? Protocol fintech editor Owen Thomas explains it all to us. Then entertainment reporter Janko Roettgers joins us to share the inside scoop on his exclusive interview with Mark Zuckerberg. We learn why Meta is betting it all on the metaverse and Brian finally gets to ask the most pressing question on his mind this week: What does Mark smell like?

And finally, Caitlin and Brian take a moment to reminisce about the iPod, which was put out to pasture this week after more than two decades on the market.

Keep Reading Show less
Caitlin McGarry

Caitlin McGarry is the news editor at Protocol.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less
Enterprise

Say goodbye to unicorns. The cloud centaurs are here.

Protocol caught up with Bessemer Venture Partners’ Kent Bennett to discuss the state of the cloud, the new SaaS models poised to make a dent on the industry and why the firm developed a new SaaS milestone.

Bessemer Venture Partners developed a new SaaS milestone that it’s calling the “centaur,” for startups that reach over $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

Photo: Bessemer Venture Partners

Kent Bennett thinks the SaaS business model is the “greatest business model in the history of the planet.” As a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, it’s fitting that he’s bullish on the cloud: Bennett was one of the main authors of Bessemer’s annual State of the Cloud report, which gives a bird's eye view of what’s happening in the cloud economy.

In the report, Bessemer analyzed everything from the new ways SaaS companies are trying to monetize their software to what areas are still underserved by SaaS. The firm also developed a new SaaS milestone that it’s calling the “centaur,” for startups that reach over $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Climate

The future of electrification, according to Google Trends

People are searching more often for how to electrify their lives, from induction stoves to e-bikes.

From “induction stove” to “home EV charging,” search interest is rising.

Photo: Michael Tuszynski via Unsplash

Feeling cynical about the state of the climate? Well, it’s hardly a guarantee of a liveable climate, but a peek at Google Trends might provide a glimmer of hope.

People are increasingly ready for the all-electric future at home and on the road. From “induction stove” to “home EV charging,” search interest is rising. And while climate change is certainly not up to the individual to solve — that’s mainly on governments and corporations — shifts in public tastes can bring about policy changes. Fast. (See: outdoor dining in major cities; marriage equality.)

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

What Elon's Twitter 'hold' even means

The answers to all the Musk-iest Twitter acquisition questions.

Keep in mind that Elon Musk isn't exactly known for telling the truth.

Photo illustration: Getty Images; Unsplash; Protocol

Elon Musk can tweet anything he likes, because he’s Elon Musk, and he’s buying Twitter, and free speech is awesome. What he can’t do is make false tweets true.

Musk said Friday that the Twitter deal was temporarily on hold while he looked into a report that spam bots and other fake accounts made up less than 5% of its users. He added, hours after his first tweet, that he was “still committed to [the] acquisition.” Investors promptly sold off shares of Twitter, thinking that Musk’s words somehow had meaning, embodied intent or otherwise had an impact on the world. They did not, eppur si muove, and yet the stock market moved.

Keep Reading Show less
Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Latest Stories
Bulletins