Class action suit means Facebook's Beacon just won't go away

Social network, as well as eight of the participants in its Beacon ad program, are sued over the sharing of user data in the weeks before Facebook altered the program.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

A class action lawsuit filed earlier this week targets Facebook and eight of the participants in Beacon, its ill-fated advertising product that shared information about third-party site activity with the social network. The set of 20 plaintiffs, mostly residents of Texas, filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Tuesday. Named as defendants are Facebook, as well as current or former Beacon participants Blockbuster, Fandango (owned by Comcast), Overstock.com, STA Travel, Zappos, Hotwire (owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp), and GameFly.

A Facebook representative told CNET News on Thursday that the company had not yet actually been served with the lawsuit, and that its legal team consequently did not have a formal statement at the time. STA Travel, Gamefly, and Overstock all declined to comment; none of the other defendants could be immediately reached.

"Until we're served, we're not being sued, so we don't have any comment," Overstock general counsel Mark Griffin told CNET News.

Beacon gained almost immediate notoriety when Facebook unveiled it as part of its Facebook Ads announcement last fall. Privacy advocates, most notably liberal activist group MoveOn.org, lambasted the program for not allowing users to disable it easily. Facebook has since modified the program and the controversy has wound down. But in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs point to the window of time before Facebook instituted the new controls--between November 7 and December 5 of last year--and claims that the social network still has access to a large amount of user data that was gathered in that period.

"If the user was not a member (of Facebook), Facebook still obtained the notification from the Facebook Beacon Activated Affiliate," the filing for Lane et al v. Facebook, Inc. read. "Information regarding user activities was sent in real time to a third party Web site--one which was not open or active in the user's browser, and one which, in many cases, the user may never even have visited or heard of."

There's one odd law that may make the plaintiffs' case stronger: the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988. The law was passed amid the fracas surrounding Robert Bork's controversial nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, when a journalist obtained Bork's movie rental record from a local video store and published it.

That's why there's already been a suit involving Beacon that specifically targeted Blockbuster for participating in such a program: a Texas woman filed suit against Blockbuster in April, claiming that the VPPA bars it from Beacon. Facebook was not named as a defendant in that suit, and though the plaintiff sought class action status for her case, she does not appear to have any involvement in this week's suit.

The defendants named in the suit don't encompass all of Facebook's original Beacon partners, but several of them could tie into VPPA protections: GameFly rents video games, Fandango sells movie tickets, Hotwire and STA deal with travel bookings, and Zappos and Overstock are both online retailers with a large scope (Overstock sells DVDs, for example). The suit also names the California Computer Crime Law and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act as grounds for the suit.

One of the plaintiffs, Sean Lane of Waltham, Mass., was immortalized in a Washington Post story about Beacon: He's the guy who bought his wife a diamond ring on Overstock.com, only to have her spot the purchase in a Facebook news feed, spoiling the surprise.

Guess he's still irritated.