Facebook has agreed to resolve a battle with consumers who sued the company for allegedly scanning the “private” messages that users send to each other, according to new court papers.
Counsel for Facebook and the consumers say they will reveal the details of the class-action settlement, which they refer to as a "settlement-in-principle," by next February.
News of the settlement comes seven months after U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton in the Northern District of California ruled that the consumers can't seek monetary damages on a class-wide basis, because assessing damages requires case-by-case decisions. Instead, Hamilton said that if the consumers can prove that Facebook violated a law by scanning the messages, they may be entitled to obtain an injunction requiring the company to revise its practices or disclosures.
The legal battle dates to 2013, when Arkansas resident Matthew Campbell and Oregon resident Michael Hurley alleged in a class-action complaint that Facebook violated the federal wiretap law by by intercepting users' messages to each other and scanning them. The company allegedly did so in order to determine whether people were sending their friends links to outside sites.
Campbell and Hurley said in their lawsuit that Facebook interpreted links within users' messages to each other as “likes,” then included them in the total number of “likes” that appear on the publishers' pages via social plug-ins.
Those allegations first emerged in 2012, when security researcher Ashkan Soltani reported that Facebook counts in-message links as "likes." Facebook said at the time that no private information is exposed, but confirmed that the like-counter "reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons and also the number of times people have shared that page's link on Facebook."
The company has since changed that practice.
Last year, Facebook lost a key battle in the case when Hamilton refused to dismiss the lawsuit at a preliminary stage. Facebook had argued that it couldn't "intercept" messages sent through its own platform.
Hamilton rejected that argument, ruling that the company's interpretation of “intercept” was too narrow.
The social networking platform alternatively argued that any interceptions fell within an exception to the federal wiretap law, which exempts conduct that occurs in the “ordinary course of business.”
But Hamilton ruled that Facebook had not yet proven that it was engaged in the ordinary course of business when it allegedly scanned messages in order to convert links into “likes.”