Facebook Fails to Dismiss Privacy Case Over Messages

Facebook Inc. lost a bid to dismiss a user lawsuit claiming it scans private messages for any reference to web sites, and then adds a user's “like” to those pages as part of a targeted advertising campaign.

The federal judge in Oakland, California, yesterday denied Facebook’s request to throw out the users’ claim under the U.S. Wiretap Act. Based upon the information before her, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton said she couldn’t determine whether the company is shielded by the law’s “ordinary course of business” exception for providers of electronic communications.

“Facebook’s unwillingness to offer any details regarding its targeted advertising practice prevents the court from being able to determine whether the specific practice challenged in this case should be considered ‘ordinary,’” Hamilton said.

The world’s largest social network for years has been the subject of lawsuits and confusion over how the company controls and displays the data that members provide. Updates like Privacy Basics, along with prompts this year for members to check their preferences for what advertisers see, have helped give users a measure of control over their content.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, stopped the challenged practice in 2012, according to the judge’s ruling, citing its lawyers’ representations at a hearing. The company still conducts some analysis of private messages to protect against viruses and to filter out spam messages, according to the ruling.

Hamilton granted Facebook’s request to throw out one of two claims the users brought under the California Invasion of Privacy Act and one claim under the state’s Unfair Competition Law.

A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on the ruling.

The case is Campbell v. Facebook Inc., 13-cv-05996, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

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