Facebook Sued Over Privacy Flap in California

Facebook is again under fire for its privacy policies, this time in the form of a civil lawsuit alleging the company violated a host of California laws pertaining to copyright, truth in advertising and safeguarding users’ personal information.

The suit, brought by five members of the popular social network in California’s Orange County Superior Court, asks for monetary damages and an injunction to halt the objectionable practices.

Facebook, for its part, said the lawsuit is baseless.

“We see no merit to this suit and plan to fight it,” Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

The plaintiffs allege, among other things, that Facebook’s licensing agreement amounts to a claim of perpetual ownership of all material its users post, regardless of whom they choose to share it with. So all photos, writings and other material posted to the site is handled in a manner that runs counter to California’s copyright and privacy laws.

Couple that with a misleading come-on that offers up the veneer of detailed privacy settings while actually sharing information irrespective of a user’s preferences, and you have the false-advertising claims.

In short, what began as a benign social network has morphed into a predatory commercial machine hell-bent on harvesting its users’ most private thoughts for financial gain.

“Facebook’s business model, however, has transformed from that of a social network into that of a data mining company,” the suit alleges. “Facebook actively seeks to open and/or disseminate private information to third parties for commercial purposes and economic benefit.”

The complaint gives a thorough treatment of Facebook’s history, its various scuffles with privacy advocates, and offers a heap of statistics about how much data the company has at its disposal.

There’s also no shortage of ominous saber-rattling about the company’s intentions (“Facebook has an enormous financial incentive to collect and manipulate private and personal information.”)

If any of that sounds familiar, it should.

Privacy advocates have gotten their hackles up over many of Facebook’s policy changes and product roll-outs in the past. Always at issue is the trade-off that entails users who willingly sign up to participate in a social community on the Web and the concern among some that privacy is getting lost in the process.

Every time the company finds itself in the crosshairs of a privacy flap, the ghosts of Facebook past come to mind. Facebook’s news feed, which was introduced in September 2006 and met with great indignation by users who were outraged that their actions on the site would be distributed via automatic broadcast. The feed has since become one of the site’s most essential features.

It happened again a little more than a year later, when Facebook debuted its ill-fated ad platform Beacon, which shared people’s purchases at third-party e-commerce sites, spoiling a fair share of Christmas surprises in the process. Facebook recanted, and backed off the policy with a mea culpa from its CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Then earlier this year, Facebook modified its terms of use agreement, adding language that seemed to assert perpetual control over the content its users post, even if they closed their account. Facebook backed off that one, too, though the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit in California are convinced that it didn’t go far enough.

They say as much in their suit, alleging that “Facebook’s license agreement amounts to effective ownership and perpetual title to all data uploaded to Facebook by any sources even if a Facebook user terminates service,” adding that the company had “ignored or failed to comply” with cease-and-desist requests.

As to the legal merits of the case, one scholar is unconvinced. Eric Goldman, the law professor at Santa Clara University who heads the High Tech Law Institute, dismissed the lawsuit in his Twitter feed as a “rant-y complaint from users who seem to dislike all of Facebook’s product choices.”

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