Lane v. Facebook = HUGE Online Privacy Fail

Lane v. Facebook
For some people, planning the perfect, surprise engagement is paramount. Sean Lane was one such guy — but Facebook foiled his proposal. How? With Beacon — Facebook’s “groundbreaking” advertising platform.

Facebook’s Beacon Program

In November 2007, Facebook and 44 partner sites launched Beacon. “A Completely new way of advertising online,” promised the program’s promotional tagline. And Beacon was monumental, but not in the way Facebook had hoped.

How Did Beacon Work?

Facebook established partnerships with various commerce brands — including overstock.com, blockbuster.com, GameFly.com, and zappos.com. When users bought items from any of the brands, the activity was immediately transmitted to said users’ public Facebook feeds. 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 would automatically post to your Facebook page — whether you were logged into Facebook or not.

The flaw in the plan is so obvious, so it’s a puzzle how Beacon got green-lit.

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 picked the perfect engagement ring on overstock.com. Within minutes of making the purchase — barely enough time to digest the enormity of his action — congratulations messages poured in on his Facebook feed. He wondered how they knew. After all, Sean hadn’t signed up for Beacon. His blushing bride-to-be also got the Facebook announcement before he 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. To make matters more complicated, Facebook’s privacy controls at the time were confusing and unclear. People who thought they’d 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 with Beacon problems. The hive-mind was not happy; 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 deemed 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, they reached a settlement. The Plaintiffs split $41,000 in recompense; 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 that Facebook unjustly got away with small slap on the wrist for a fairly major violation.

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