Reasonable Doubt: Does Facebook violate privacy laws in B.C.?

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      This month Reasonable Doubt is covering privacy issues. Privacy issues are arguably one of the most important emerging concerns of our generation. The digital age brought with it new ways to record, track and steal each other’s personal information.

      Many privacy concerns revolve around the government's invasion of privacy, such as the computer programs capable of spying on the vast majority of human communications, as reported by Edward Snowden and allegedly used by the United States government.

      Privacy issues are also a concern in the private sector. More and more, corporations are collecting our personal information so that they can compile data to better sell you their products—Shoppers Optimum cards or Safeway club cards, for instance.

      In other cases, corporations actually use your private information in advertisements, such as Facebook’s “sponsored stories”.

      A local law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook alleging that the sponsored stories program violates British Columbia’s privacy laws. The Privacy Act allows you to sue someone who uses your personal information or portrait in his advertising without your consent.

      A sponsored story is an advertisement typically located on the right-hand side of your Facebook page that links your friend’s name and profile picture with a product or company; for instance, it might say “Eric Duncan likes Jasper’s Market” with your friend Eric’s profile picture and a logo for the grocery store below it.

      I recently spoke with Greg McMullen and Christopher Rhone, two lawyers involved in the class-action lawsuit.

      According to Rhone, companies pay Facebook to create and post sponsored stories. It’s a business strategy. Facebook users are not asked permission to be used in sponsored stories either. If you’ve “liked” a company on Facebook, you might have been used in a sponsored story.

      The only way to figure it out if you’ve been used in a sponsored story is to ask your friends: advertisements that use your information are only visible on your friend’s Facebook pages.

      Contrary to some reports, McMullen says that Facebook users cannot opt out of sponsored stories. The only way to prevent your information from being linked to sponsored stories is by setting your privacy settings to the most restrictive setting, preventing anyone but you from seeing any of your Facebook activity (posts, likes, pictures, etc). But then what’s the point in using Facebook at all?

      In most cases, it is difficult to put a dollar value to an invasion of privacy. How much harm does Facebook cause the average person when they use their profile and picture in an ad? Not much.

      Most people can’t afford to sue Facebook because they might be awarded a small amount of money. Who wants to pay a lawyer $3,000 to receive a $20 judgment?

      According to McMullen “even if there is no obvious financial cost, someone’s privacy is still invaded, which is a harm in and of itself…privacy is an important part of people’s identity and it should be protected”. 

      Class actions provide greater access to justice by providing lawyers with an economic incentive to represent groups of people with small claims: if the class wins or settles their lawsuit, then the lawyers receive a portion of the settlement funds, which can be large. For instance, Facebook offered $20 million to settle a similar class action in the United States.

      Class actions also have the benefit of altering social policy because the threat of a class action acts as a strong deterrent. No government or corporation wants to be the defendant in a class action because they typically incur massive legal fees and often pay out millions of dollars in damages.

      Privacy class actions are still relatively new, especially in British Columbia. But they have the potential to deter large-scale privacy violations that have become more common in the digital age. As Mr. McMullen describes it, class actions have the potential to address the “little legal wrongs that affect everybody”.

      If you’re interested in participating in the Facebook class action, you can visit facebookadsclassaction.com. 

      Note: Facebook was not contacted for this article.

      Joseph Fearon is a civil litigation lawyer at Stevens Virgin practising in the areas of personal injury and commercial litigation. Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at straight.reasonable.doubt@gmail.com. A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

      Comments

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      1 Comments

      Stupid Consumers

      Aug 12, 2013 at 6:52pm

      The ignorant that choose to share their personnel details forgo their right to privacy since they are the PRODUCT.

      That is the people that use Social Sites like FB are the Product / Sheep being sold.

      "...Dumb Fucks..." Quote by the Founder of Fabebook to describe yes YOU the Facebook user..

      "They trust me — dumb fucks," says Zuckerberg in one of the instant messages, first published by former Valleywag Nicholas Carlson at Silicon Alley Insider, and now confirmed by Zuckerberg himself in Jose Antonio Vargas's New Yorker piece.