In this article of Privacy Litigation Series, I propose to take a closer look at one of the most curious social media privacy cases that both paved the way for a more privacy-conscious surfing and more sophisticated surveillance mechanism used in advertising. Let’s review Lane v Facebook, Inc.
It was distant (in social media terms) 2009 and Facebook was enjoying its prime among the social media networks. Logically, the company also was looking for the ways to monetize user data. So they created Beacon, an advertisement system that monetized on the activity of Facebook users on partner websites.
Beacon was launched on November 6, 2007, with 44 partner websites participating in the program.
Its modus operandi was quite outrageous for today’s assessment.
When you, for example, bought a ticket on the Fandango website, Beacon reported about that activity to Facebook and the notification about your activity was posted on your News Feed. Pretty wild, right?
To make it even crazier, the system did its dirty thing even when the user wasn’t connected to Facebook and could do this without the user’s knowledge or consent. Moreover, you had no option to block the information from being sent to Facebook.
Naturally, people weren’t happy about such privacy negligence from Facebook. Firstly, civic action group MoveOn.org has created an online petition demanding Facebook to “not publish their activity from other websites without explicit permission from the user”. It gathered more than 50 000 signatures in less than 10 days. Then came a class-action lawsuit, one of the biggest online privacy cases at the time.
Class-action means multiple plaintiffs and Sean Lane represented them. His story is illustrative in this case. Lane went to Overstock.com and bought a diamond ring for his wife as a surprise present. Beacon captured this action and sent it to Facebook. The activity was published on Lane’s News Feed. The surprise was ruined, all plaintiff’s friends saw the post. His wife saw it too.
Because of the opt-out nature of Beacon in order to disable it, you had to get into complicated privacy controls of Facebook as well as 40+ websites that incorporated the system. Also, you couldn’t turn it off entirely. Basically, that meant that the poor users were absolutely clueless about how to stop their surprise purchases to appear in the News Feeds.
Thankfully, there is justice in the world. Facebook users got together (masterfully guided by the experienced law firms that specialize in getting multimillion-dollar settlements from Big Tech companies) and sued Facebook.
Although nothing could substitute Sean Lane’s wife’s genuine surprise for getting a diamond ring as a present, Facebook lost this case and the privacy justice was served leading to the discontinuation of Beacon.
Outcome of the case
Facebook had to shut down its Beacon Service and created a $9.5 million fund for privacy and security.
Sean Lane received $15,000.
Why it mattered
The assessment of the results of the settlement remains controversial.
On one hand, this privacy litigation was a big PR blow for Facebook that showed the sneaky practices company uses to manipulate user personal data. It has been one of the first social media privacy cases that were successful and raised important questions about surveillance and ethics.
On the other hand, many believe that the failure of Beacon directly innovated the approach Facebook (and other social media giants) had for harvesting and monetizing user data leading to the creation of “concealed” advertising systems that users neither see nor can control.
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