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Facebook Tweaks Disclosures To Settle Privacy Battle Over Message Scans

Late last year, Facebook said it had agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over allegations that it scanned private messages users send to each other, but the company didn't reveal the deal's terms at the time.

Now, class counsel has finally made the deal public -- and it's unimpressive, at best.

The agreement, outlined in papers filed Wednesday with U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis Hamilton in the Northern District of California, doesn't provide for monetary compensation to Facebook users whose privacy may have been violated. Instead, any user who wants to purse a claim for damages can bring a new suit -- though the odds of this happening appear remote.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, on the other hand, will receive attorneys' fees of up to $3.23 million for bringing the case, while the two individuals who served as lead plaintiffs will receive up to $5,000 each.

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If accepted by Hamilton, the deal will resolve a battle dating to 2013, when Arkansas resident Matthew Campbell and Oregon resident Michael Hurley alleged 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.

The allegations 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.

The settlement agreement filed with Hamilton notes that Facebook changed its back-end procedures.

The deal also require Facebook to make some additional disclosures about how it processes URLs within messages. Specifically, Facebook must now post the following sentence on its help site: “We use tools to identify and store links shared in messages, including a count of the number of times links are shared.”

Facebook isn't the only company to enter into a questionable settlement of a privacy case. Last year, Yahoo agreed to add new language to its privacy policy in order to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it wrongly scans email messages for advertising purposes. Yahoo also promised to make some technical changes to the way it scans emails. That agreement called for payments of up to $4 million to the attorneys who brought the case, but nothing to everyone else.

Google also agreed to settle a privacy case over allegations that it scans email messages on similar terms. The company agreed to make some back-end changes to its scanning procedures, and pay up to $2.2 million in attorneys' fees to the lawyers who brought the case.

Hamilton is slated to hold a hearing on April 12, when she could decide whether to grant preliminary approval to Facebook's settlement.

1 comment about "Facebook Tweaks Disclosures To Settle Privacy Battle Over Message Scans".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, March 3, 2017 at 9:19 a.m.

    Enough of this. The judge should vacate the settlement, award the attorneys nothing, and instead hold Facebook to its full disclosure agreement. I don't have time to research the background, but I'll bet the lead plaintiffs were approached by the attorneys in order to assign names to the class. 

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