Today, just about every privacy-related headline seems to lead to a few privacy lawsuits-sometimes more than a few. But it’s not at all clear these lawsuits, which usually rely on pre-internet era laws, will be successful in court. One of the earlier internet privacy class-action suits against Facebook has now been consolidated in a San Jose federal court, and the judge has thrown out most of the claims against the social-networking giant.
The lawsuit isn’t over, because some of the claims can be re-filed. But in the judge’s early order in the case, he expresses deep skepticism about some of the plaintiffs’ claims, as noted by Venkat Balasubramani, an internet lawyer and blogger who has written an analysis of the ruling.
The crux of the complaint is this: for several months in 2010, when Facebook users clicked on advertisements, Facebook would send along the Facebook user ID of the person who clicked. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are saying that violates various federal and state privacy laws.
Like most internet privacy lawsuits, the plaintiffs in this case are relying on very outdated laws. For example, they say that Facebook has violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, also called the “Wiretap Act,” which bans the wiretapping of telephones. That law prevents your local phone company from disclosing the contents of you communication (your phone conversation) to anyone other than the intended recipient (the person you called.) The plaintiffs say that because Facebook is passing on user IDs, it’s disclosing unauthorized communication and in violation of that law.
But the judge in the case isn’t buying it. He dismissed the wiretapping claim, as well as the others such as a contract claim. The two main reasons: first of all, the users were purposefully communicating with advertisers-so the user IDs weren’t going to an outside, unknown party. Second, the plaintiffs didn’t have any proof that they were harmed at all-that killed off their allegations that Facebook was in violation of contract law.
Overall, this case will probably limp forward-for now. But this order is an early sign that even though a slew of privacy lawsuits are being filed now, many of them won’t stand up in court.
» Judge’s order in consolidated Facebook Privacy Litigation case