Independent research in danger
Data analyst Travis Brown researches how social media platforms work. In his research, he uncovers that right-wing extremists are spreading hate and disinformation unhindered on the platform X, formerly Twitter.
Instead of taking consistent action against hate and disinformation, X repeatedly blocks Brown’s account. The accusation: unauthorised data collection. The analyst is to be prevented from claiming his rights with long written pleadings and the threat of a gruelling legal battle. HateAid is now taking action with Travis Brown against the account block.
The Travis Brown case
What it is about
In July 2023, X had blocked the account of data analyst Travis Brown without warning. Brown, together with HateAid, then obtained a temporary restraining order against X. His account was reactivated. The reason given was that Brown had not been heard by X and that the account had been blocked without sufficient justification.
In October 2023, Brown’s account was blocked again – this time with an advance warning and citing alleged violations of the platform’s guidelines. Again, with the support of HateAid, Brown filed a motion for a preliminary injunction.
With a surprising result: the Berlin Regional Court dismissed the action, considering itself to lack jurisdiction.
Brown is now appealing against this. HateAid is covering the costs of the proceedings and legal representation as part of its legal costs funding.
„It is extremely dangerous if independent research and reporting on social networks can no longer take place. Next year, the European Parliament elections and the US presidential election will take place.
Right-wing extremists will mobilise massively on social networks and spread disinformation. We support this case with Travis Brown on behalf of all researchers who make public what goes on behind the scenes on the platforms.
Because only if we know what is happening there and who is acting how, can we protect our democracies.”
Anna-Lena von Hodenberg, CEO HateAid
This is why we take legal action
We want to show that platforms like X cannot arbitrarily block people they don’t like. With this landmark case, we want to strengthen the work of researchers in the long term. The data collected is crucial so that we can take action against disinformation and hate.
Researchers must therefore be protected from the platforms’ attempts at intimidation. So far, taking action against the platforms in these cases involves an enormous cost risk that many of those affected cannot bear. A decision in this process could make it easier for researchers to take action against the platforms in the future.
Critical voices are locked out
The leaders of social media platforms are increasingly locking out researchers and their content. In the USA, for example, X is suing the nongovernmental organisation Center for Countering Digital Hate for publishing several reports showing an increase in hate speech on the platform.
The organisation AlgorithmWatch even had to suspend a project on Meta’s Instagram platform in the face of a threatening lawsuit.
The danger: out of fear of intimidation lawsuits with expensive lawyers smothering them in hundreds of pages of briefs, researchers may soon stop publishing important information altogether.
But we urgently need these insights to counter hate, disinformation and extremism.
What will happen next
Demands on the EU
Brown has appealed against the decision of the Berlin Regional Court. The Berlin Regional Court is now reexamining whether it has jurisdiction over Brown’s case. If the court maintains its view that it does not have jurisdiction, the case will go to the Higher Regional Court.
We continue to support Brown in taking legal action against his account blocking. We are convinced: Our society needs courageous voices like Travis.
We don’t want researchers to have to go to court for every blocking anymore. With the Digital Services Act, the EU’s new digital law, there are already laws in place that ensure data access for researchers.
That’s why we start a petition now to the EU Commission calling for consistent implementation of the Digital Services Act to guarantee freedom of research.
With the petition #FreeTravisFreeResearch, HateAid therefore demands from the European Commission:
- Exercise oversight: Ensure that platforms no longer arbitrarily block disagreeable accounts and content.
- Clear rules for data access: Create clarity on how researchers and civil society organisations can access real-time data.
- Fast implementation: Push for all EU member states to implement the Digital Services Coordinators as soon as possible. Only then will we be able to effectively claim our rights
The EU Commission can and must act now. That’s why we are increasing pressure on EU policymakers to consistently implement the DSA to guarantee freedom of research. Photo: Shutterstock
Foto: Wolf Lux / Alfred Landecker Foundation
„Social media platforms are part of the public space in which political opinion making and agenda setting take place. That is why the platforms fulfil a democratic function – and we must not ignore it when extremists and antisemites mobilise there unimpeded unhindered.”
Silke Mülherr, Co-CEO Alfred Landecker Foundation
Alfred Landecker Foundation
This landmark case is realised as part of the Landecker Digital Justice Movement – an initiative by HateAid and the Alfred Landecker Foundation.
Frequently asked questions concerning the lawsuit
Travis Brown is a software developer and data analyst from the USA. He has been active on X, formerly Twitter, since 2007 and now lives in Berlin.
Between 2014 and 2015, Brown himself worked as an open source advocate at X. Since 2021, Brown has been developing open source programs that track hate speech on the platform and collect statistics using freely available data.
The results of his work are cited around the world by major news outlets such as the BBC and CNN.
Brown’s goal is to use the data collected to investigate the extent to which X has developed into a platform for the far-right scene.
A preliminary injunction is a provisional decision by a court in summary proceedings. It is intended to secure claims or settle disputed legal relationships until the court has reached a final decision.
In urgent cases, a temporary injunction can be issued within a few days or weeks.
In this case, three jurisdictions come into consideration: Germany, Ireland and the USA. Travis Brown lives in Berlin, but created his account at X in the USA. In addition, the platform’s headquarters for the European region are located in Dublin.
For the question of jurisdiction, it is relevant where the place of performance for the contract between Brown and X is located and whether Brown is a consumer within the meaning of European law.
In both cases, these are very complex legal issues.
What is surprising here, however: in the first injunction proceedings, the Berlin Regional Court deemed itself competent. The second application, on the other hand, was rejected for lack of jurisdiction.
X argues that Brown violated platform policies by collecting and analysing data on use and function. However, Brown did not draw on original data sets at all with the open source programs he developed.
Instead, Brown is working with data from a “WayBackMachine”. This is an internet archive that stores various versions and states of web pages from around the world.
For this reason, Brown’s research is not subject to the platform’s rules and therefore cannot violate them.
In fact, the action against Brown is a clear attempt of intimidation. With that, researchers like Brown are to be driven off the platform and stop their work.
The Digital Services Act is a new European Union regulation that aims to regulate online platforms and reduce the spread of disinformation and digital violence. Online platforms are, for example, social media or search engines that allow users to distribute their own content (e.g. Facebook, YouTube or Google).
With the commencement of the DSA, these platforms have to follow new rules, for example make it easier to report criminal content and submit regular transparency reports.
In addition, each EU member state is to set up its own digital services coordination to monitor compliance with the new obligations.
Check out our user guide to discover how you can claim your new rights on social media.
The Digital Services Act comes into force for all online platforms on February 18, 2024. For very large platforms and search engines (including X), the new rules have already applied since August 25, 2023.
You can find a list of online platforms to which the DSA already applies on the European Commission’s website.
Online platforms have an immense influence on our communication and information behaviour. However, at the same time, they promote the rapid spread of hate speech, disinformation and other forms of digital violence.
To counter these dangers, we need robust insights into the functioning and risks of online platforms and their algorithmic systems.
However, researchers are repeatedly denied access to the relevant data by the platforms. Article 40(4) of the DSA stipulates that platforms must allow researchers to access this data under certain conditions.
This is to ensure that research to identify systemic risks can actually be carried out.
However, this regulation is very restrictive and there are still many ambiguities, such as when and how researchers can request data access.