Court: Judge wrong to dismiss complaint against Facebook

Science and Technology

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Friday that a judge was wrong to dismiss a cafe owner’s complaint against Facebook that said his social media account was shut down without warning.

Emmett Soldati had marketed his Teatotaller cafe in Somersworth on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. He has used the cafe and its social media accounts to support LGTBQ rights and acceptance, describing the business as a “queer hipster oasis.”

The Instagram account was shut down in 2018; Facebook did not offer an explanation and argued for a dismissal of Soldati’s complaint, which sought restoration of the account. Facebook said it was immune from such claims under the federal Communications Decency Act.

A judge in small claims court had found in favor of Facebook. He appealed to the state supreme court.

Soldati, who doesn’t have a law degree but is the the son of a former prosecutor, represented himself during oral arguments before the court earlier this year.

“Today the New Hampshire Supreme Court sent a strong message that users of large social media platforms have rights that can not be ignored or trampled — and the claims against these global tech monopolies cannot be shielded by appealing to vague federal statutes,” Soldati said in a statement. “Facebook does not have absolute immunity. Today is a win for all those people who have felt helpless against the abuse of power of Big Tech.”

A spokesperson for Facebook said in an email the company wasn’t commenting on the case.

The state supreme court said that Soldati has “sufficiently alleged a claim for breach of contract” under the terms of use and state law.

“Teatotaller alleged that it entered into the Terms of Use with Facebook regarding Teatotaller’s use of Instagram in exchange for fees,” the justices wrote. “Teatotaller further alleged that Facebook deleted Teatotaller’s Instagram account in violation of the Terms of Use, causing Teatotaller to ‘lose business and customers,’ for which Teatotaller requested ‘damages and the restoration of (its) account.’ Assuming the facts alleged by Teatotaller to be true, we hold that these allegations suffice in the context of a small claim action to state a cause of action for breach of contract.”

The court said that the federal act’s barrier to Teatotaller’s breach of contract claim wasn’t evident from the face of the complaint, saying, “we hold that dismissal on this ground was improper.”

“We simply cannot determine based upon the pleadings at this stage in the proceeding whether Facebook is immune from liability” under a section of the act, the court added. That provision says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker” of information provided by another content provider.

The court said although Teatotaller’s claim may ultimately fail, either on the merits or under the act, it sent the case back to the lower court.

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