PETA Sues NIH And HHS Directors For Blocking Comments With 'PETA' And '#StopAnimalTesting'

from the that's-not-content-neutral dept

PETA is certainly not above filing some pretty ridiculous lawsuits, so I was initially skeptical when I heard that it had filed a lawsuit against the directors of the National Institutes of Health (Francis Collins) and Health & Human Services (Xavier Becerra) over Facebook keyword blocking. However, upon reading through the lawsuit, it seems pretty legit. At issue is that it appears that NIH has put in place a block list on Facebook and Instagram that blocks anyone from mentioning PETA and a surprisingly long list of words and phrases that are likely of interest to PETA.

If this sounds sorta somewhat similar to the lawsuits saying that the President can’t block people on social media, well, perhaps that’s because that lawsuit and this one both involve lawyers from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia, who have specialized in getting government officials to stop abusing social media blocks to suppress speech. In this case, some PETA supporters were noticing that certain comments they were posting on the NIH Facebook and Instagram pages didn’t appear to be showing up. So they FOIA’d the blocklist that NIH was using, and discovered it was pretty extensive… and not generally what you would call “content neutral” (which would be required under the 1st Amendment):

a. #stopanimaltesting
b. #stoptesting
c. #stoptestingonanimals
d. Animal(s), animalitos, animales
e. Chimpanzee(s), chimp(s)
f. Primate(s)
g. Marmoset(s)
h. Cats, gatos [i.e., Spanish for “cats”]
i. Monkey(s), monkies
j. Mouse, mice
k. Experiment
l. Test(ing), testing facility
m. Stop
n. PETA, PETALatino
o. Suomi,1 Harlow2
p. Hurt, hurting
q. Kill
r. Torture(s), torturing
s. Torment(ing)
t. Cruel
u. Revolting

That list is pretty revealing. I mean, it’s not difficult to see how this came about. Not for nothing, but PETA folks can be a pain in the ass. Which seems to basically be by design. They like making a nuisance of themselves, and you can see how some administrator at NIH was getting sick of it and started coming up with words that would block their annoying comments. And that’s fine for normal everyday private actors. But when it’s the government, there’s a problem. Especially when that list seems so clearly targeted. For something like this to survive 1st Amendment scrutiny it needs to be “content neutral.” This is anything but.

Defendants’ practice of hiding comments containing words associated with animal
rights advocacy, including the name of a well-known animal rights organization, is a viewpointdiscriminatory
and content-based restriction on speech that infringes Plaintiffs’ First Amendment
rights. It violates Plaintiffs’ right to speak in a public forum and their right to read the speech of
others who have used blocked keywords in comments on Defendants’ social media pages.

Given the ruling in Knight v. Trump, the claims here seem pretty strong (in fact, potentially even stronger than that case). This isn’t just blocking people, it’s legit trying to bar discussions of certain topics NIH doesn’t want discussed in open spaces that it is creating, as a government entity. PETA may be annoying (and at times frivolous and ridiculous), but this lawsuit seems exactly on point.

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Companies: knight first amendment institute, peta

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Comments on “PETA Sues NIH And HHS Directors For Blocking Comments With 'PETA' And '#StopAnimalTesting'”

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59 Comments
That Anonymous Cowardsays:

Oh look, we flipped the switch and now no one can comment.
Problem – Solution.

While PETA is annoying they have a right to be annoying.
One can understand how a PETA flame war in the comments might have mucked things up on their page.
(I mean just mention freezers & the PETA folk get very angry that you know they kill more animals than LA county, where they went to the directors home and threw blood to protest & terrorize his wife & kids)

Sometimes we can’t have nice things & it is far better to cut off all posting than to let PETA get any media coverage or cash when you should have known better.

Anonymoussays:

And I thought we were smarter than this.

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of PETA’s insanity. They do not need Republican-backed organizations to show how crazy they are.

I’d like to inform everyone that a good chunk of the "facts" being spouted around are either extreme exaggerations or outright lies from the Republicans and their pet organizations.

Source. Though admittedly, not one I’d trust. Their Disinfo campaigns against PETA is very interesting.

Reminder, adopt, not buy.

Anonymoussays:

This complaint is right, but they are looking through the telescope from the wrong end.

A government agency collecting comments and then republishing a fake, misleading version of those comments online for political reasons – that is a problem. The government isn’t supposed to be paying for political indoctrination. (This may seem absurd, especially where say recreational drugs are concerned, because they don’t follow this much)

But the bigger problem is that the government is making material available under the condition that a reader or commenter must agree to Facebook Terms of Service and give personal information to that site. This is a much larger deviation from free access to unbiased information.

They are a government. They have access to immense printing resources, government owned web servers, even an entire Top Level Domain of their very own! There is no non-corrupt reason for them to be out on some chiseler’s old Hot or Not List.

bhull242says:

Re:

I don’t think you understand what the article said. This is about blocking posts on Twitter.

Regardless of what VPN or other system you use, any Tweets will be unencrypted by the time Twitter tries to display them. If they weren’t, the things that would show up on Twitter that use such encryption would appear as gibberish.

Once the tweet, which is unencrypted, is in Twitter’s possession, then and only then will Twitter-based blocks like the keyword-based blocks mentioned in the article be applied. As such, unless you do the encryption in such a way that it won’t be decrypted when displayed on Twitter, you can’t use encryption to get around blocks on Twitter like this.

On top of that, the point isn’t whether or not it is possible to circumvent these filters. The point is whether or not the government is allowed to impose such blocks/filters in the first place. Those are completely unrelated issues.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

I would really like to believe that the brain damage need to read the article, and then make the original comment is impossible to achieve (sufficient brain damage to make the comment would leave one tragically unable to actually read the article).

So, if this isn’t trolling, then there are some deep questions about human biology, and maybe western education that need urgent addressing.

PS. I chalk it up to trolling.

That Anonymous Cowardsays:

Re: Re: Re:

Have you not studied the ‘Hold my beer’ race for very long?
The level of understanding and confidence shown makes me wonder if the IP tracks back to Congress.

Human biology is icky and western education is the best that a bunch of people in texas can approve (even when they are horribly wrong).

I wish it was trolling but I keep coming back to that cartoon of the guy screaming I did my research.

That Anonymous Cowardsays:

Re:

Thank goodness we have a group willing to steal peoples pets from their front porches & yards and euthanize them to tell us how its all so very wrong.

I mean had you considered its the manner in which you present your conclusions, without any citations, that might lead people to believe you are just a bunch of wackos who will turn in up in public naked to make a statement about fur and but have no problem with people living on the streets because in your twisted reality if we save all the animals magically all humans will be saved as well.

You sound stressed… have a burger and relax.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

It is not FB that is doing it, it is the government agencies mentioned in the article that are doing it.

What I am saying is that employess there can use a VPN to bypass their workplkace firewalls, and the network admins will have no idea where you are going with the VPN.

For example, When I had my online radio station, I could see connections coming from residential connections in Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada.

It was people at work in San Diego, who live in Mexico, using VPNs set up on their home broadband connections in those cities to bypass the company firewall to tune in, and the boss would not know what was happening.

What I am talking about here is bypassing your workplace firewall to access block material.

And contrary to what one clown on the Usenet computer security newsgroups used to say, it was not a CFAA violation to bypass the firewall with a VPN to access my online radio station.

Bypassing filtering is not a CFAA violation, no matter what this clown in the computer security newsgroups said over 10 years ago.

That would not matter anyway, since my station, when I had it, was in Australia. That clown tried to say I was violating the CFAA and sections of the Canada Criminal Code, by offering my service, and tailoring it to office works.

Neither the Canada Criminal Code, or the CFAA apply, in Australia. US and Canadian laws do not apply to servers hosted in Australia.

I also used to run my own under-the-radar VPN service aimed at people in offices, schools, etc., etc, for being able to bypass workplace firewalls. Mine was a very special VPN which allowed things like Internet radio, social media, or shopping to go through, but the the bad stuff, like viruses and porn, out.

One of the filtering programs I used would block all ads at the firewall level, so no malware laced ads would get through.

The only ads I could not block are video ads on YouTube. For some reason, my homebrew ad blocker setup could not block YouTube video ads, though it could block ads for everything else.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:

Read the article

LOL. I’m curious: is this your genuine, normal state of being, or is it altered some how?

Even the most cursory glance through the article, by someone who’s never used Facebook makes it obvious that it’s non-NIH/HSS people who are being blocked, and the block appears to be making use of features Facebook offers to uses.

bhull242says:

Re: Re: Re:

The article has nothing to do with any kind of firewalls at all, nor is it related to anything involving network admins. It’s about using Facebook’s services to block certain comments from third parties from appearing on their Facebook and Instagram pages. HHS and NIH are setting the parameters for the blocks, but from a technological standpoint, it’s Facebook that executes those blocks.

As such, how the content reaches Facebook’s servers makes absolutely no difference as to whether or not the content will or won’t be blocked. As long as Facebook can interpret the contents, Facebook’s filters will work on the comment at least as well as any keyword-based filter does on unencrypted communications.

This also has nothing to do with the workplace. This isn’t a case of internal communications, a case where certain communications are being blocked from exiting the workplace at all, or a case where certain communications are being blocked from appearing on computers if and only if the computer is on a particular network. This is about content sent from anywhere using any machine on any network to a service from appearing to anyone anywhere on any machine on any network due to the actions of a government agency. Workplace firewalls simply don’t work that way. They cannot block things coming from something not on the network from appearing on machines not on the network, which is what’s happening here.

anonsays:

Re: Re: Re:

What really happens is that network admins subscribe to a service that provides them real-time address lists for services that they ban: hategroups, porn, vpns, restricted countries (N.Korea, Sudan, Cuba), etc. and when you try to connect, you get a splashpage telling you that you’ve reached a blocked site and that if you think you need access for your job you have to fill in the on-screen form and request access.

I used to work for a company using this type of service to manage outbound connections, and one group actually had access to gambling sites because they sold products to Casinos and their hardware vendors.

bhull242says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is not FB that is doing it, it is the government agencies mentioned in the article that are doing it.

By using Facebook! Why can’t you get this through your head!

Look, when you have a Facebook page, you can give Facebook a list of keywords that you want blocked from any comments on your page. From there, Facebook’s algorithms will search every single comment posted on your page for those keywords. If any one of those keywords is found, that comment will be blocked from appearing to anyone who views your page.

That’s what happened here. The NIH has a Facebook page, and—using the same tools available to everyone else on Facebook—gave Facebook a list of keywords to block from their Facebook page which includes the keywords listed in the article. From there, Facebook automatically blocks comments based on those keywords.

What is not happening is the government intercepting the posts before they reach Facebook at all and then comparing them against a list of keywords, nor is the government simply preventing machines that use their network from being able to display or be used to post such comments. All the actual checking and blocking is done by Facebook’s software, and the posting is done by PETA (among others). Using a VPN simply cannot be used to get around this since the content never reaches the government’s network or computers in the first place.

And contrary to what one clown on the Usenet computer security newsgroups used to say, it was not a CFAA violation to bypass the firewall with a VPN to access my online radio station.
Bypassing filtering is not a CFAA violation, no matter what this clown in the computer security newsgroups said over 10 years ago.

I… don’t believe any of us have suggested anything to the contrary. I mean, you’re probably right that bypassing filtering isn’t a CFAA violation (it’s not the case that the user was using a machine they weren’t allowed to use), but that’s not really relevant at all to what we’re saying.

LucyPsays:

Re: Re:

PETA operates one small shelter—a shelter of last resort for animals who need euthanasia to end their suffering (many of whom have been rejected by other facilities). This includes dogs who are aggressive and unadoptable because they have been kept chained their entire lives; feral cats dying of contagious diseases; animals who are wracked with cancer; elderly animals who have no quality of life and whose desperate guardians brought them to PETA because they can’t afford to pay a vet to euthanize them; and the list goes on. A painless end is a kindness for these animals, and the services PETA provides are vitally needed in an area where many people can’t afford to take their animals to a veterinarian. Please watch this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r3mqxDiK0o&feature=emb_l

Rockysays:

Re:

Yes, it can – it’s all about context. When the page is run by an official government entity that entity can’t moderate or decide who can post or not since that is explicitly forbidden in the first amendment. Facebook et al on the other hand isn’t bound by the first amendment in that way, and if a user breaks the community standards/TOS it’s well within the services rights to moderate or deny that user access.

Mike Masnicksays:

Re:

The page can’t simultaneously be a public forum (for NIH) and not a public forum (for Facebook).

Yes, it absolutely can. In the same way that a private event hall is not normally a public forum, but absolutely is a public forum when a government official holds a town hall there. The issue, under the law (and basic common sense) is not the place, but who is using it for what.

Scary Devil Monasterysays:

Re:

"The page can’t simultaneously be a public forum (for NIH) and not a public forum (for Facebook)."

It absolutely can.

Example; Trump using Twitter to pound out at least pseudo-official statements from the presidency of the united states. His specific Twitter feed can be judged a public forum – the rest of Twitter, not so much.

Same with a private stadium. It’s a private venue but if it’s used by a government official to present information it acquires public space status, within certain limits, for the event in question.
It may be more legally appropriate to state that it’s actually the event performed by a government official which is public.

Scary Devil Monasterysays:

Re:

"Don’t we all have the right to make a nuisance of ourselves?"

That’s a bit of a dangerous track to take. Free speech is a thing, certainly, but "making a nuisance of yourself" is, to be blunt, how people have described racists, bigots, stalkers and harrassers in both past and present. What you consider a nuisance is the trigger for a bully victim or someone with PTSD.

I’d say you should have a "right" to be a nuisance only in a society which as a whole doesn’t tolerate assholes. See Karl Popper’s Paradox of Tolerance as to why.

"I think their extremist POV is necessary in a culture that’s so in love with meat and dairy production."

That’s a very long, deep and complex debate right there….on the one hand agrarian methane due to massive cattle keeping contributes significantly to global warming and the runoff to hypertrophic ecosystems, on the other hand you need some rather advanced logistics, with concomitant carbon footprint, to ensure you get all essentials out of plant matter only. Todays food production and transport systems aren’t tailored to solving veganism at scale.

It’s really not a debate which has an obvious or non-implausible solution before we get to where an industry manages to make a profit around large scale vegetarian alternatives. I personally put my bet on algae farms to be the frontrunner – seed cables, leave in open ocean for three months, reel in and profit.

But it’ll be a tough move, given how much money is sunk into agrarian subsidies. Albeit one I think will eventually be necessary – and I say that as a person enamored of good beef and cheese myself.

Scary Devil Monasterysays:

Re: Re: Re:

"Let the government decide what is right and what is wrong leads to the use of re-education camps…"

I wasn’t aware that government making the decision that murder, rape, assault, theft, arson, DUI, hazardous chemical handling, speeding, or private bombmaking all being wrong was such a horrible decision it would inevitably lead to soviet-style siberian camps.

Maybe that’s just another "only in america" thing…although I believe even in that place your assertion may require a lot of specification before it’ll make for a decent argument.

Government, at least in the rest of the world, isn’t always wrong.

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