For many people, planning the perfect, surprise engagement is paramount. Sean Lane was one of those people — but Facebook effed it up for him. How? Via Beacon — Facebook’s “ground breaking” advertising platform. So sympathetic was his tale proposal-gone-wrong woe that he ended up the named plaintiff in one of the largest Internet law class action lawsuits to date, Lane v. Facebook — arguably the social media company’s most embarrassing online privacy fail.
A Short Explanation of Facebook’s Beacon Program
In November 2007, Facebook and 44 partner sites launched Beacon. “A Completely new way of advertising online,” boasted the social media company’s promotional tagline. And Zuckerberg’s marketing team wasn’t lying, Beacon was groundbreaking; but if politics have taught us one thing, it’s that all things “maverick-y” aren’t always good.
So, how’d Beacon work?
The 44 partnerships established with other companies including overstock.com, blockbuster.com, GameFly.com, zappos.com and many others, meant user activity on partner sites was immediately transmitted to a person’s public Facebook feed. For example: If you bought product A at site B, within seconds of clicking “buy now”, the name of the product, a description and price tag automatically posted to your Facebook page — whether you were logged into Facebook or not.
The flaw in the plan was so obvious it’s a puzzle as to how Beacon got green-lit. One has to wonder if the erudite, marketing-genius, Zuckerberg, anticipated the backlash but went ahead with the pet experiment anyway.
To make matters worse, Facebook chose to gloss over the fact that Beacon was on by default. Users assumed the opposite was true.
Sean Lane’s Foiled Engagement Leads To Lane v. Facebook Class Action
Excited about settling down with his sweetheart, Sean Lane shopped around and decided on the perfect engagement ring from overstock.com. Within minutes of making the purchase — barely enough time digest the enormity of his action –Sean was getting messages of congratulations from Facebook friends. He wondered how they knew, after all, he hadn’t signed up for Beacon. His blushing bride-to-be also got the Facebook announcement before Sean actually popped the question.
Much to Sean’s (and many other people’s) chagrin, it turned out that Beacon was an opt-out program, which meant that every single Facebook user was enrolled unless they manually disabled the program. Facebook’s privacy controls at the time, however, were confusing and unclear. People who thought they had disabled Beacon, hadn’t. Moreover, security adjustments had to be made on all 44 Beacon-partner sites in order to effectively expel one’s self from the program.
Lane v. Facebook – The Court Case
Lane was not the only person to have problems with Beacon. The hive-mind was not happy and within 14 days of the program’s launch, 50,000 people had signed Moveon.org’s anti-Beacon petition. Sean’s tale of betrothal mayhem, however, was the most cringe-worthy. So, the would-be-groom became the named defendant in the class-action — Lane v. Facebook — .
Tried in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Lane v. Facebook included 7 named defendants: Blockbuster, Inc., Fandango.com, Hotwire, Inc., STA Travel, Inc., overstock.com, zappos.com and gamefly.com.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Facebook and the named Beacon partners violated the Electronics Communications Privacy Act, Video Privacy Protection Act, California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, California Computer Crime law and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
After a lot of unwanted publicity, a settlement was reached. The Plaintiffs had to split $41,000; the attorneys pocketed about $3 million; Facebook, some would argue, paid itself a little over $6 million to keep researching online privacy initiatives.
Facebook users got an email explaining the case.
Lane v. Facebook was not one of the social media behemoth’s finer moments. And many legal watchers have argued over the years that Facebook got away with simply a small slap on the wrist. But one thing is for certain — Lane v. Facebook was not a high point for the Zuckerberg production.