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Summary:

Who has the right to use platforms like Facebook and Twitter? On Thursday, a federal judge emphatically sided with Facebook against an adware company that wanted to use the site for its own ends.

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A federal judge ruled that Facebook has the right to exclude users if they install a program that alters the look of its website and swaps out its ad offerings.

In a ruling issued Thursday in San Diego, U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo dismissed an antitrust complaint filed by Sambreel, a controversial advertising company that offers products with names like PageRage that let users tweak the look of their Facebook page.

“We are pleased by the decision,” said Facebook’s lead counsel, Craig Clark, in an email statement. Sambreel’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The companies got in a bitter fight earlier this year after Facebook “gated” users who had downloaded the Sambreel products — meaning the users had to remove PageRage software before they could log on to the social network. Sambreel responded with an aggressive legal and public relations campaign, arguing that Facebook broke antitrust laws. Judge Bencivengo, however, was having none of this:

There is no fundamental right to use Facebook; users may only obtain a Facebook account upon agreement that they will comply with Facebook’s terms, which is unquestionably permissible under the antitrust laws. It follows, therefore, that Facebook is within its rights to require that its users disable certain products before using its website.

The ruling comes at a time of uncertainty over the degree to which large companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter can control their products. On one hand, these are private companies that provide a free service — meaning they should be able to do what they like. On the other hand, they have become like public utilities that people depend on for their communications and on which third party companies make their livelihood.
As Judge Bencivengo noted, “this matter raises novel technological issues.” But she concluded that recent social media cases supported Facebook’s position. (Today, however, brought another decision involving Twitter that leaned the other way).

Sambreel’s position may have been partly hampered by the fact it is a decidedly unsympathetic defendant. According to a Harvard Business School professor, the company uses “trinkets” to trick users into downloading software that slows down their computers; meanwhile, publishers have accused it of hijacking ad spaces and stealing revenues from sites like the New York Times.

The legal issues at stake here are complicated. If you want to wade into details, the decision is embedded below:

Sambreel and FB

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  1. This means Google won’t have to fear anti-trust either. If there’s no “fundamental right” to use Facebook, something that is so ingrained in people’s relationships with other people right now, which makes it so hard to leave it, then it’s definitely not a fundamental right to use a search engine like Google, which is used completely objectively based on a higher relevancy in results than other competitors.

  2. If there is no fundamental right to use Facebook, then Facebook should be required to open up their data and protocols to third party services. Facebook is a de facto standard and has a monopoly on social networking. Therefore if I want to interact with my friends and family online, I need to use it. But if I don’t like some aspect of their service or don’t agree to their terms, then I’m stuck. This is yet another situation where the large company gets to have their cake (a monopoly) and eat it too (no requirement for openness) while leaving the regular people out in the cold.

    The idea that “if I don’t like it, I can just go use some other service” doesn’t work when the data that people are sharing are all locked up in the system I don’t like.

    1. Facebook isnt a monoply. It may be the most popular social networking site and the one most of your family and friends use….but that doesnt make it a monopoly. The people you know can always set up accounts on other sites such as linked in and myspace and still connect with you online. You can also use email.

      The electrical company is a monoply. If I need electricity in my home I only have one option. Facebook isnt the only option you have to interact with people online.

      1. You could always get solar power or other ways of making power, no? You’re right – the definition of a monopoly is strict – being the “sole” provider of a service or commodity. The definition when used in the courts seems to be a bit more loose though. For instance, Microsoft was considered a monopoly in 1999 but it never had 100% market share of Operating Systems.

        I’m a big Facebook fan and don’t necessarily believe this judgement should have been against them but would agree that, with the network effect of 1 billion monthly users, their service is unrivaled and monopolistic. Not sure what you do about that though.

      2. For what it’s worth, being a monopoly isn’t illegal. Anticompetitive behavior is.

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