The hits keep coming for Facebook as the beleaguered tech giant faces backlash over a litany of policies regarding how it handled users’ personal data.
While negative publicity and congressional hearings have taken a toll on the company’s image and customer base, a judge’s ruling this week could potentially have a far more direct financial impact on the social media platform.
As the East Bay Times reported, a federal judge paved the way for millions of users to pursue a class-action lawsuit against Facebook with the potential of billions in awarded damages.
The case hinges on an interpretation of an Illinois law prohibiting the storage of biometric information by any company without direct consent. Monday’s court ruling by U.S. District Judge James Donato provided a rare victory among class-action suits in consumer privacy cases.
Facebook has maintained it had the right to collect image data uploaded to the platform, but plaintiffs argue the company’s use of that information violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act of 2008.
According to that legislation, each of the 6 million users eligible under the terms of the suit could translate to a fine for Facebook of between $1,000 and $5,000. Donato referenced the potential financial ramifications of the suit in his ruling.
The judge wrote that Facebook “seems to believe” that individual complaints, not a class-action suit, would be the appropriate way to address the issue.
A Facebook representative acknowledged the ruling, promising a vigorous defense and reiterating the company’s assertion that “the case has no merit.”
Donato noted the fact that “damages could amount to billions of dollars” in concluding that the action could nevertheless move forward as presented.
He wrote that “substantial damages are not a reason to decline class certification,” approving a group of millions of people with a registered Facebook account in Illinois as of June 2011.
“Although many individuals may not have had enough tagged photos to generate a face template in Facebook’s database, in January 2011 (i.e., before Facebook implemented tag suggestions for all users) the average user was tagged in 53 photos, far more than the 10 needed to generate a face template,” a court filing in the case states.
Facebook has succeeded in a change of venue from Illinois to California, but the judge said there is sufficient evidence the company violated the spirit of the original state’s law to approve the pending lawsuit.
As Donato wrote, the tech company has amassed a “wealth of data on its users, including self-reported residency and IP addresses,” allowing it to isolate Illinois users whose profiles include face templates.
Attorney Shawn Williams represents Facebook users taking part in the suit and predicts their effort will result in serious changes in the company’s privacy policies.
“As more people become aware of the scope of Facebook’s data collection and as consequences begin to attach to that data collection, whether economic or regulatory, Facebook will have to take a long look at its privacy practices and make changes consistent with user expectations and regulatory requirements,” he said.
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