On April 9, 2014, ROCHON | GENOVA LLP commenced a class action lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court, alleging that Facebook illicitly intercepted and scanned its users’ private messages without their knowledge or consent.
The lawsuit alleges that the URLs (website addresses) in users’ private messages were harvested by Facebook in violation of users’ privacy. Facebook did this in order to inflate its web presence and attract increased advertising revenue.
The practice was only stopped in October 2012, when an investigation by security researchers that was published in the Wall Street Journal exposed what Facebook was doing. Facebook did not acknowledge its actions nor apologize to users, but quietly shelved the practice.
“Facebook intercepted its users’ private messages for its own commercial gain and has never acknowledged or apologized for its behaviour,” said Joel Rochon, partner at ROCHON | GENOVA LLP, who is representing the class members. “Social networking sites such as this need to be held publicly accountable. Surreptitious surveillance of private communications cannot be tolerated in a democratic society.”
Private messages on Facebook function in a similar way to email. Facebook’s Data Use Policy provides that private messages are just that – private. None of Facebook’s policies disclosed to users that their private messages would be systematically intercepted and scanned, and the contents of those messages treated as “Likes” for other sites via the social plug-in function.
By engaging in this behaviour, Facebook was able to gather more user data which it could then use to enhance the reach and accuracy of its targeted advertising – its chief source of revenue. Users were in fact more likely to share personal information by private message because they mistakenly believed the messages (unlike public postings) were truly private.
The class action lawsuit includes all Canadian resident Facebook users who sent or received private messages containing URLs up to October 2012. There are more than 18 million Facebook users in Canada – and around three-quarters of them log on to Facebook at least once a day.
The lawsuit alleges that Facebook’s actions were a violation of class members’ privacy rights. None of the allegations have been proven in court.