Communications and Media

Lawsuit Target Facebook Privacy Issues

Is that your photo in the Facebook advertisement? Imagine one husband's surprise at seeing his wife's photo in an ad for a singles dating service.

Are you also a Facebook user? Then you too are at risk of having your photos or personal information used by advertisers or others without your consent. These concerns caused five California residents to file a lawsuit against Facebook last month for invading their privacy.

How Facebook Works

Facebook is the largest social networking Web site on the Internet. With a few simple clicks, you get a free home page where you can post photos, videos and messages and connect with other Facebook users.

You can then add friends and groups to your Facebook account by selecting people with whom you want to share information. There are many applications like games, horoscopes and quizzes developed by third parties to use in your "spare" time.

Social Advertising on Facebook

Facebook says in a blog post that it doesn't sell members' personal photos or information to advertisers. The wife's photo was put on the ad by an outside application in violation of Facebook's policies. Facebook had the ad removed.

However, it does permit targeted advertising based on data mining and the tracking of your online browsing and shopping transactions. Data mining is using special software programs to go through members' profiles and Web pages to take demographic data (like age, sex and location). Data mining also locates information about members' activities and preferences. That information is then used to place ads on your home page that might best appeal to your specific interests.

Lawsuit Alleges Privacy Violations

The lawsuit alleges that the Web site violates state privacy, publicity and consumer protection laws by sharing members' personal information with advertisers and others for commercial purposes. The plaintiffs argue that by not disclosing the extent of its data mining practices, Facebook misled users into thinking it provides a secure environment for sharing all sorts of personal information with friends.

Also, unless users take time to adjust their privacy settings, their profile photos and information about their online shopping preferences may appear in advertisements broadcast to their friends.

The plaintiffs say that this sort of advertising violates California publicity laws that protect against the use of a person's name or photo for commercial purposes. The plaintiffs also argue that Facebook doesn't do enough to protect private photos and information from misuse by third party applications.

Choice and Transparency

Cyber-savvy computer users may find the lawsuit to be a bit silly: Pictures and information are posted on Facebook to share with others. Now they're complaining their privacy was violated because the photos and information were shared with others. It's like suing a social networking Web site for...well, aiding social networking.

But maybe the lawsuit makes a good point. Perhaps users don't give meaningful thought to the way that Facebook uses their personal information. It's a safe bet that many of Facebook's 250 million users don't read or understand the Web site's Terms of Use or Privacy Policy. Many users probably don't know how to adjust their Facebook privacy settings to keep images and information from being shared with advertisers and applications.

Facebook Announces Privacy Improvements

Just 10 days after the lawsuit was filed, Facebook announced it was making improvements to give users more control over their personal information. By giving you better insight about the way Facebook uses your information and by providing you with better options for controlling your privacy, Facebook may meet many of the concerns raised in the plaintiffs' lawsuit.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Are there privacy laws in our state that would cover the privacy issues with Facebook?
  • What kind of relief is offered under privacy laws? Money damages? A judgment to protect privacy in the future?
  • If my information or images are gleaned from a social networking site, could there be copyright infringement? Could the Web site be liable for damages, in addition to the user of my information or images?

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