Two California Facebook users have sued the social network for violating their right to privacy—and profiting from it. Plaintiffs argue Facebook is secretly intercepting users’ private messages and scanning them for links to third-party websites, then selling that data to advertisers and marketers seeking to better target consumers. Facebook denied the allegations, saying they are “without merit.”
David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy CEO and Bloomberg contributing editor, appeared on Bloomberg West last Thursday to talk about the privacy lawsuit and what ramifications it could have for the popular social media platform. According to Kirkpatrick, the legal complaint isn’t likely to slow Facebook’s momentum. “It doesn’t strike me as a very big deal,” he said, adding Facebook’s actions—if they prove true—don’t differ too greatly from the procedures of other Internet companies like Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo.
We already know Gmail targets users with ads based on the content of their emails. So why is Facebook’s alleged surveillance of private messages any different? It’s not, say some, contending that Facebook is transparent about mining user data, as outlined in the company’s Data Use Policy. “It’s scrupulous about trying to stick to the policies it’s articulated about respecting the privacy of its users. On the other hand, data is its stock and trade from the standpoint of its business,” Kirkpatrick said.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, however, claim Facebook misrepresents users’ messages as private. By doing so, it “creates an especially profitable opportunity … because users who believe they are communicating on a service free from surveillance are likely to reveal facts about themselves that they would not reveal had they known the content was being monitored.” This data mining and user profiling, the plaintiffs allege, violate the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act and California unfair competition and privacy laws. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status to sue on behalf of all Facebook users who have sent or received a private message with a URL in the past two years.
But while Facebook may be the one on trial, users’ so-called “friends” could be the bigger threat to their privacy. “If you are friends with someone on Facebook, you’re trusting them with your data,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s the big privacy problem that most Facebook users have. They have too many friends that they don’t really know.”