By DAMIEN FISHER, InDepthNH.org
The tech giant behind Facebook and Instagram potentially lost more than $100 when it lost the small claims lawsuit brought by Emmett Soldati, owner of Teatotaller’s Cafe.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta also lost immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law frequently used to shield social media companies from legal consequences.
“This judgment is definitive that Facebook is not immune,” Soldati told InDepthNH.org.
Soldati’s been fighting Meta for years since the company deleted Teatotaller’s Instagram page without any reason. He went up against Meta’s high-priced lawyers and represented himself in court, even taking the case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The result of his labors was Dover District Court Judge Sawako Gardner’s ruling this month that states the company did have a contract with Teatotaller’s.
Gardner’s ruling finds the terms of service agreement users sign when they create their social media accounts on Instagram have the legal force of contracts. When Meta deleted Teatotaller’s account in violation of the terms, it was breaking its contract with Soldati’s business.
This represents a major legal change to the way Meta is used to operating, according to Soldati.
“Meta counsel tried to claim it’s a free service and they do not owe users anything. You are making a promise to provide this account, absolutely this is a contract,” Soldati said.
The other big change for Meta in Gardner’s ruling is that the company cannot avoid certain lawsuits using the federal Decency in Communications Act.
Section 230 of the Decency in Communications Act has been used to protect social media companies from getting sued when users post defamatory content, Gardner found that Meta could not use Section 230’s protections to stop Soldati’s lawsuit.
“Social media companies have used Section 230 to dismiss case after case after case,” he said.
Teatotaller’s Instagram account was deleted without notice in 2018. Soldati said his business never violated any of Meta’s terms of service which would result in a deletion, and he never got an explanation from the company.
Soldati was able to create a new account five days later, but he lost the follower base he had spent years building on the social media platform. Soldati used the Instagram page as a digital storefront for Teatotaller’s and the loss of his original account hurt his bottom line, he said.
Meta did not respond to a request for comment. According to court documents, the company offered no explanation for the deletion, and representatives told the court it did not need a reason.
Teatotaller’s business is known for its progressive embrace of social issues, including its celebration of the LGBTQ+ community. The business was targeted last year by neo-Nazi’s when it hosted a drag queen story hour. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is seeking Civil Rights violation charges against members of neo-Nazi group NSC-131 for the incident.
Soldati does not think his business’s pro-LGBTQ+ position is behind the deletion. He blames incompetence.
“I don’t believe that to be the case. I think it’s more likely Facebook’s technology failed,” he said.
Gardner’s ruling awards Soldati $100 in damages plus $145 in court costs. He’s currently seeking a clarification order, as he’s spent a lot more than $245 with Meta. But, his case was about more than the money, it was about forcing the company to admit it was in the wrong.
“It’s always been about standing up for something so simple,” Soldati said.