Facing Backlash: Facebook Sued By Users Over Privacy Concerns

privacy

Five Facebook users have sued the social networking company for allegedly misappropriating their names, photos and private information.

In the lawsuit, filed this week in state court in California, the users complain about a host of Facebook practices ranging from Social Ads -- which tells people who among a group of friends are "fans" of particular marketers -- to the company's registration process, which allegedly "is designed to obfuscate review of the terms of use and privacy policy."

"Facebook's business model," the plaintiffs allege, "has transformed from that of a social network into that of a data mining company. Facebook actively seeks to open and/or disseminate private information to third parties for commercial purposes and economic benefit."

Facebook says it sees no merit to the case and intends to fight it.

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One of the Facebook members who is suing, 11-year-old "Xavier," alleges that he said in an Aug. 8 post that he had swine flu. The lawsuit alleges that Xavier's parents deleted that information, but haven't been able to learn whether the data was "stored, disseminated or sold by Facebook."

Facebook's default privacy settings make such information available only to Xavier's friends.

The users also complain about the types of data available to outside developers. "Facebook has not provided users with adequate information to make a meaningful and informed decision regarding the harvesting and use of their personal data by third-party developers," the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit comes several weeks after Canada's privacy commissioner issued a report stating that Facebook "does not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent unauthorized access to users' personal information by application developers."

The very breadth of the complaint makes it difficult to assess, says law professor Eric Goldman. "There's a mix of potentially meritorious claims with a lot of garbage allegations," says Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University.

Internet law expert Venkat Balasubramani adds that the lawsuit seems to be "a mish-mash of everything." "There's a laundry list of facts," he says, "but no central event that the lawsuit latches on to."

A more critical hurdle for the plaintiffs could be proving monetary damages. "Are there really concrete, cognizable damages?" Balasubramani asks. He says that breach of privacy lawsuits don't usually get far in court unless the people suing can point to some form of out-of-pocket loss.

Facebook also is still defending itself in a separate privacy lawsuit filed last year related to its Beacon ad program, which told users about their friends' e-commerce activity. That case is still pending in federal district court in the northern district of California, according to court records.

The lawsuit brought this week was filed by the prominent Mark Lanier law firm -- a Houston, Tex.-based firm that has won nine-figure awards on behalf of consumers in other cases. In 2005, Lanier convinced a jury to award more than $250 million to the widow of a man who died after taking Vioxx -- although that verdict was later reversed on appeal. Lanier also won a verdict of more than $115 million in an asbestos case.

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