How private are private messages on Facebook? Facebook has become the target of a lawsuit that alleges the company systematically reads private messages and profits from the data. The company is preparing to defend itself and the lawsuit could have major implications for internet marketing.
The class-action lawsuit was filed by two Facebook users named Michael Hurley and Matthew Campbell. Using information from news reports and their own conclusions, the plaintiffs argue that Facebook has violated the privacy of its users. They claim that Facebook scans the content of messages sells the information to data miners and advertisers.
Besides stopping the objected practice, the plaintiffs also want Facebook to pay each member of the class action lawsuit “$100 a day for each day of violation or $10,000.”
“The complaint is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Huffington Post.
[The class action complaint in its entirety can be read here.]
The complaint is based on something the Wall Street Journal reported back in October 2012. In a nutshell, the paper said that Facebook’s system scans private messages for links. The system follows the link and if there is a Facebook Like button on the page, that reference in the private message counts as a like.
Facebook practice of automatically giving Likes to links in messages has had unintended consequences. When the news was first reported, some marketers used the information to boost their page likes by mailing the link to Facebook accounts.
In response to the Wall Street Journal article, Facebook stated:
“We did recently find a bug with our social plugins where at times the count for the Share or Like goes up by two, and we are working on fix to solve the issue now,” the company said in a statement. It said the bug is related only to non-Facebook sites and not to “Likes” on Facebook Pages.
“Otherwise, the company said, the system is working as expected. “Many websites that use Facebook’s ‘Like’, ‘Recommend’, or ‘Share’ buttons also carry a counter next to them. This counter reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons and also the number of times people have shared that page’s link on Facebook,” including over private messages.”
Besides the issue of scanning emails, others have complained that the system was deceptive. Since it didn’t matter whether anyone read the message or clicked on the link, pages could appear to be far more popular than they actually were.
“If [you’re] visiting an online store and you see a lot of likes under the product then this might cloud your judgement,” the Wall Street Journal quoted one commenter as saying.
Systems like this, that scan the content of emails or messages have been used by several websites. Google and other email providers use the content of the messages to determine what ads are shown to the users. Microsoft once tried to make an issue of Google’s use of the practice in it’s “Scroogled” campaign from 2012. Google was the sued for it’s program in September of 2013.
Some internet security experts have come to Facebook’s defense, noting that Facebook scans links partly for the protection of the users.
“[I]f you didn’t properly scan and check links, there’s a very real risk that spam, scams, phishing attacks, and malicious URLs designed to infect recipients’ computers with malware could run rife,” wrote internet-security expert Graham Cluley.
The fate of the lawsuit has major implications for internet marketing. Right now, one of the reasons target advertising works so well is that systems like Gmail and Facebook use content to make sure ads are shown to the right people. If these legal challenges were to succeed the immediate effect would be to reduce the efficiency of internet marketing campaigns and shrink the effective size of advertising networks.