In the wake of concerns over possible government privacy violations and credit card fraud issues, American citizens are getting more wary of how much information they divulge. Now comes news that several lawsuits have been filed against social media and gaming websites alleging that personal information is being sold to advertisers and Internet tracking companies. With the popularity of Facebook and FarmVille, where can the average consumer turn to make sure that his or her privacy is protected?
Campbell and Hurley v. Facebook
A December 2013 lawsuit by Michael Hurley and Matthew Campbell claims that Facebook “has systematically violated consumers’ privacy by reading its users’ personal, private Facebook messages without their consent.” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that Facebook was scanning messages and registering “likes” for links it finds. Facebook denies that it scans messages for anything other than signs of spam or phishing. The lawsuit, however, alleges that the messages are being mined for information that is being sold to outside entities. In a separate suit, Google has also been accused of reading the Gmail of its users.
Ditirro v. Facebook
In another suit against Facebook, Anthony Ditirro is claiming that fake “likes” are being registered by Facebook and used in advertisements for products that the individuals never endorsed. Ditirro claims his name was used in an advertisement for USA Today; he states he never endorsed the newspaper. In a related issue, ReadWrite claims that “Ghost Likes” have shown up in friends’ and family members’ feeds after the individuals have died. Apparently, if you use Facebook, it’s possible to “like” a product or service from beyond the grave.
Robertson v. Facebook and Graf v. Zenga
Lawsuits filed in California (Graf v. Zenga) and Rhode Island (Robertson v. Facebook) have cited the Wall Street Journal investigation and charge that app makers are sending Facebook User ID numbers to third parties. Nancy Graf claims Zenga Game Network, Inc., which produces the FarmVille and Texas HoldEm Poker apps, sells users’ personal information “for substantial profit” and that this violates federal communications law and California computer-crime laws. The Rhode Island suit alleges that Facebook is responsible for allowing this privacy breach. Zynga has argued that Facebook IDs are pubic information and can be discovered by a Google search.
The lawsuits have been dismissed at the state level, but have been appealed to the 9th Judicial Circuit, where they were consolidated. However, many in legal circles feel the cases will not make it past this level. The court has ruled in a prior case that information gleaned in this manner doesn’t reach the level of “content”, and therefore doesn’t violate federal law.
General Mills Seeks to Circumvent the Lawsuit Question Altogether
Now, along comes General Mills and inserts new privacy rules on its website stating that the consumer, by downloading their coupons, entering their contests or “liking” their products has waived the right to due process by such action(s). It doesn’t state that you cannot file a dispute with General Mills, just that it can only be resolved by arbitration and not in a court action. The dispute is considered to be a one-on-one disagreement, between the consumer and General Mills. “The problem for consumers, though, is that the ‘one’ is actually a high-powered company with corporate lawyers.” (Levenson) Sounds pretty much like David meets Goliath, only Goliath has a machine gun and David is still packing a slingshot.
In any fight against a mega-corporation like Facebook, Google or General Mills, the consumer is going to be at a disadvantage. The “little guy” just seems to keep getting smaller and smaller. I guess we’re lucky at this point that we get the chance to “like” anything at all; pretty soon even that decision will probably be taken out of our hands.
Graham, Scott, “Ninth Circuit Cool to Privacy Claims Against Facebook, Zynga,” The Recorder, Jan. 21, 2014
Kleinman, Alexis, “Facebook Accused of Reading Private Messages, Selling Data,” Huffington Post, Jan. 3, 2014
Larson, Selena, “Facebook Hit with Another Lawsuit After People Finally Catch On To False Likes,” http://readwrite.com/2014/01/10/facebook-false-likes-lawsuit
Levenson, Eric, “Can a Facebook ‘Like’ Protect a Company from Lawsuits?” http://www.businessinsider.com/general-mills-lawsuits-facebook-likes
Riley, Charles, “Facebook Faces Suit Over Private Messages,” CNN Money, Jan. 3, 2014
Taube, Aaron, “General Mills Says if You ‘Like’ it on Facebook, You Can Never Sue the Company,” http://www.businessinsider.com/general-mills-lawsuits-facebook-likes-2014-4
Valentino-Devries, Jennifer, “Facebook and Zynga Face Lawsuits Over Privacy Breach,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19, 2010