Social Media Is Not A Product, Tech Cos. Tell MDL Judge
By: Enrique Serna
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Social Media Is Not A Product, Tech Cos. Tell MDL Judge
Written By: Y.Peter Kang and edited by: Alanna Weissman
Rep posted from Law360 (April 18, 2023, 8:39 PM EDT) — The parent companies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube have asked a California federal judge to toss multidistrict litigation claiming they caused addiction and mental health problems in young users, arguing that the platforms can’t be considered products for purposes of a product liability claim.
Meta, Snap, TikTok and Google filed a joint motion to dismiss on Monday asking U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers to toss the MDL accusing the companies of failing to warn teens and parents about the risks of addiction to social media and mental health problems such as suicidal ideation, eating disorders and depression.
The companies said their platforms are services that provide third-party content rather than tangible consumer products, and therefore the four primary product liability claims alleged by the plaintiffs in the master complaint fail as a matter of law.
“Plaintiffs’ Master Complaint is but the most recent in a long series of cases asking courts to impose product liability rules on speech and technologies that communicate it, including book publishing, movie and television distribution, video games, and, more recently, online services,” the motion states. “Time and again, however, courts have rejected such attempts to transform the body of law governing dangerous ‘products’ into a tool to regulate how information is disseminated.”
Monday’s filing is the first salvo in a sprawling case involving hundreds of suits that could tackle a number of novel and complex issues, and also includes lawsuits filed by school districts in Washington and Arizona.
Aside from the product liability issue, the other primary issue set to be decided by the district court is whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides broad protections for online companies that publish user-created content, shields the social media companies from liability.
The tech companies said Monday that the MDL should be tossed even without addressing the Section 230 issue, but that it will offer additional arguments on the issue after the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Gonzalez v. Google. That case, which had oral arguments in February, has the potential to set a new legal precedent for Section 230 cases as Google’s YouTube is accused of aiding and abetting a terrorist attack by allegedly hosting Islamic State group propaganda videos.
Lead counsel for the MDL plaintiffs said in a joint statement Tuesday that they believe the motion is without merit.
“We will continue to hold these social media companies accountable for the immense, widespread harm they’ve caused and continue to cause through their products,” the attorneys said.
A Google spokesperson told Law360 on Tuesday that the plaintiffs’ claims are false.
“Protecting kids across our platforms has always been core to our work,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “In collaboration with child development specialists, we have built age-appropriate experiences for kids and families on YouTube, and provide parents with robust controls. The allegations in these complaints are simply not true.”
Counsel for the other defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Many of the suits in the MDL allege that the platforms’ algorithms are purposely designed to manipulate human psychology and in particular teenagers, whose developing brains make them more impulsive and therefore more likely to be hurt by using social media than adults.
But the companies said in Monday’s motion that the plaintiffs’ claims do not adequately allege causation, or how the alleged negligence stemming from the companies’ “defective” algorithms caused their injuries.
“Plaintiffs’ generalized assertions that the alleged defects are theoretically capable of causing harm do not suffice,” the companies said. “Courts have repeatedly held that defendants do not proximately cause all potential harms that plaintiffs allege could flow from their services. Moreover, for many of the most severe alleged harms the generalized allegations show that independent acts by third parties, such as sexual predators, drug dealers, and cyberbullies, were the cause of any such harms, not Defendants’ services.”
The plaintiffs are represented by Lexi Hazam of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, Previn Warren of Motley Rice LLC and Chris Seeger of Seeger Weiss LLP, among many others.
Meta is represented by Phyllis A. Jones, Beth S. Brinkmann, Mark W. Mosier, Paul W. Schmidt and Emily Johnson Henn of Covington & Burling LLP.
TikTok is represented by Geoffrey M. Drake, Albert Q. Giang and David Mattern of King & Spalding LLP and Andrea Roberts Pierson and Amy Fiterman of Faegre Drinker LLP.
Snap is represented by Jonathan H. Blavin, Rose L. Ehler, Victoria A. Degtyareva, Ariel T. Teshuva and Lauren A. Bell of Munger Tolles & Olsen LLP.
Google is represented by Brian M. Willen, Lauren Gallo White, Carmen Sobczak, Christopher Chiou and Matthew K. Donohue of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
The case is In re: Social Media Adolescent Addiction/Personal Injury Products Liability Litigation, case number 4:22-md-03047, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
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