Tech

America’s Supremes give Facebook nothing but heartaches: Top court won’t stop ‘$15bn wiretap’ lawsuit

The US Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal by Facebook to halt a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit that claims the social media giant illegally tracked users.

On Monday, America’s highest court declined to take the case on and review whether the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, based in California, was right to revive the lawsuit, which alleges Facebook broke the Wiretap Act by continuing to monitor users’ activities around the web even when they are not logged into its service. The legal challenge seeks $15bn in damages.

The social network says it put an end to that specific type of tracking back in 2011, after it was exposed by a researcher. Facebook was using a combination of third-party plugins and browser cookies to keep constant watch of its netizens, pulling in streams of information about what they were doing online and compiling it in a vast database that it then indirectly sold to advertisers. Facebook argued its data is used to tailor content and show more “personalized” ads to users.

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The Silicon Valley giant has furiously fought the subsequent lawsuit ever since. It was dismissed by a federal judge in 2017 though the four plaintiffs appealed and last year, it was revived [PDF] by the Ninth Circuit, which said in its decision: “Facebook’s user profiles would allegedly reveal an individual’s likes, dislikes, interests and habits over a significant amount of time, without affording users a meaningful opportunity to control or prevent the unauthorized exploration of their private lives.”

The Wiretap Act makes it illegal to eavesdrop on electronic communications though it exempts those who are parties to the communication – the sender ad/or receiver of the information. Facebook argued the tracking mechanisms it used made it such a direct party. The Ninth Circuit was not persuaded. Facebook then appealed [PDF] that decision to the Supremes.

The lawsuit also claims that Facebook violated California’s privacy laws though the Supreme Court appeal only concerned the federal Wiretap Act argument. With the Supreme Court rejecting Facebook’s appeal, the case will now continue. ®


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