Three Facebook users are asking a federal appellate court to revive a lawsuit accusing Facebook of violating their privacy by tracking their activity on health sites.
"Long-standing constitutional, statutory, regulatory, contractual, and common law rules place important limits on intrusion into private matters, particularly involving one’s own health," the Facebook users argue in papers filed this week with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. "These limits apply to social networking companies just as much as anyone else."
The legal dispute dates to last year, when Web users proceeding under the pseudonyms "Winston Smith," "Jane Doe 1," and "Jane Doe 2," alleged in a class-action complaint that Facebook gathered data about users' visits to health sites, including ones operated by the American Cancer Society, Melanoma Research Foundation and University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Facebook gathered this data via the "Like" button, according to the court papers. They also alleged that Facebook uses the data gleaned from health sites to sell targeted ads based on medical topics.
All three say they exchanged communications with health care providers about conditions that they or a family member suffered from. Smith alleged that he had melanoma, while Jane Doe 1 said she had back pain, and Jane Doe II said her husband had an intestine transplant.
Smith and the other users claimed that Facebook violated federal and state privacy laws, including the federal wiretap act, which prohibits companies from intercepting transmissions without at least one party's consent.
The web users also sued the health sites for allegedly violating their own privacy policies, which promised to refrain from sharing users' personally identifiable information.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in the Northern District of California dismissed all claims against Facebook and the health sites. Davila ruled that the users consented to Facebook's data-gathering efforts, because the company discloses online that it collects information from third-party sites that use Facebook services, including the "Like" button and Facebook log-in button. He also ruled that he lacked jurisdiction over the health site operators because they aren't based in California.
Smith and the other users are now appealing Davila's decision to dismiss their claims against Facebook. Among other arguments, they say Davila should not have found that they consented to share information about their visits to health sites with Facebook.
"No reasonable person would have believed that the specific data at issue was being disclosed to, tracked, acquired and sold by Facebook," they argue.
They add that any disclosures by Facebook about data collection conflicted with the promises made by the health sites themselves. "No reasonable user who viewed Facebook’s and the health care entities’ disclosures would have understood that Facebook was collecting the information at issue," they write.
Facebook is expected to file a response next month.