A California man claimed that LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) “humiliated” him by sharing his Internet browsing history with marketers. In a big win for the professional social networking site, a federal judge found that the man couldn’t go forward with the suit because he hadn’t been harmed — financially, emotionally or otherwise. The case is yet another episode in courts’ ongoing efforts to decide what individual privacy is worth.
In a ruling handed down late Friday, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh dismissed the suit after finding that Kevin Low didn’t have standing to bring a $5 million class action lawsuit that was filed last March in San Francisco on behalf of all U.S. LinkedIn users. The judge found that, since Low had not suffered any actual harm, he did not meet the “case or controversy” threshold that the Constitution requires for a federal lawsuit to go forward.
LinkedIn is a fast-growing website that allows people to post their professional profiles and to network with other users. Low claimed the site violated federal and state privacy laws by combining his LinkedIn identification number with his browsing history (a list of websites he visited) and then selling the packaged information to market research companies like Nielsen Netratings and Scorecard Research.
In her decision, Judge Koh quotes Low’s claim that people who “‘seek advice about hemorrhoids, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation, mental health, dementia, etc., can be reasonably certain that these sensitive inquiries have been captured in the browsing history’ and sent to third parties to be exploited.” But she also found that Low could not prove the humiliation he claimed because he could not point to any specific information about his web browsing that LinkedIn had shared with third parties.
Companies like LinkedIn and Facebook use programs called cookies to track users’ web browsing habits, a practice that allows them to better target their services and advertising. If the companies refer to individual users when they share or sell data, they typically will do so by means of anonymous user ID numbers that do not disclose personal information.
Judge Koh ruled that Low’s lawyers had failed to put forth a coherent argument to explain how exactly the third party companies could identify Low on the package of information they received from LinkedIn.
“We are pleased with the Court’s decision to dismiss this complaint. LinkedIn takes the privacy of our members seriously and does not sell, rent, or otherwise provide personally identifiable information to third parties,” said LinkedIn spokesman Hani Durzy in an emailed statement. Low’s attorneys did not reply to requests for comment.
The decision also addressed the question of how much a person’s browsing history is worth in dollars and cents. Judge Koh ruled the answer is nothing at all because, even if data companies can profit from it, the collection and sale of such information does not create an “economic loss” for an individual Internet user.
This finding coincides with another recent ruling in which the same court concluded that Facebook users were not entitled to payment when their pictures were shown to their friends as a means of promoting the site’s Friend Finder service. In the LinkedIn case, Judge Koh gave Low and his lawyers have 21 days to amend the claim if they wish to try again.