Facebook confronts class action lawsuit on behalf of 70M users

Yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified for more than five hours before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees. At times awkward and at times boring, among other things, the hearings revealed how little government officials really understand about how social media works.

While there was some tough talk, the hearings suggested there will be little in the way of new privacy legislation to come out of Washington. However, there is a possibility that the FTC will fine Facebook for violations of the 2011 consent decree.

There’s also potential civil liability to shareholders and users. There are pending investor lawsuits for the plunge in Facebook’s stock following the Cambridge Analytica revelations. And earlier this week, a class action suit was filed in federal court in California on behalf of roughly 70 million Facebook users in the US.

The lawsuit concerns the facts surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of user data originally captured by the “thisismydigitallife” app. The complaint asserts that Facebook violated its user agreement terms and policies and broke privacy and consumer protection laws. It asks for various types of damages, including punitive damages, and an injunction to compel Facebook to discontinue “the unfair and deceptive business practices alleged in this complaint.”

The central factual claim is that Facebook profited from the transfer of user data without consent.

The issue of user consent is one central theme addressed several times in different ways by senators questioning Mark Zuckerberg yesterday. One line of questioning involved the accusation that “Facebook has been scraping years’ worth of call and text data from Android phone users.”

On that particular issue, Facebook clarified in a blog post that “[c]all and text history logging is part of an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android.” But a third-party flash poll of Android users found that many people may not have understood the nature of the consent they were providing. The poll argues that nearly 90 percent did not “give Facebook consent to collect [their] call and text history.”

Yesterday’s Senate hearings were the culmination (of sorts) of a backlash against tech companies in the wake of 2016 Russian election meddling and other developments. In some ways, Zuckerberg and Facebook were stand-ins for the entire industry, which has seen its narrative shift from “making the world a better place” to eroding public institutions.

That sentiment was echoed in remarks Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman made to Recode. He argued that doing the right thing may negatively impact growth, so social good and profits are in tension — if not at odds. “In some ways, Silicon Valley as a whole has lost its purpose,” he claimed.

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