Thanks to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, Facebook can now be subject to a $15 billion class-action lawsuit stemming from allegations that it tracked the online activity of its users, even when they weren’t actively using or logged in to the social media platform, the Washington Examiner reported.
The alleged tracking of online users, and subsequent sharing of the data collected with advertisers, took place between 2010 and 2011 and is purported to have been stopped, according to Facebook, after the practice became publicly known in 2011.
Facebook asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the case after it was revived by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020, but the high court denied that request along with dozens, if not hundreds, of other petitions for action from the Supreme Court.
At the heart of the lawsuit is a claim that Facebook’s tracking of user activity on websites other than the platform constituted a violation of the federal Wiretap Act, Reuters reported.
That act prohibits unauthorized eavesdropping on electronic communications unless all parties of the communication — the sender and receiver — agree to allow access by additional parties.
In this case, Facebook is accused of having exploited “plug-ins” utilized by third-party websites — such as “Like” and “Share” buttons — as well as the digital “cookies” users accumulate while browsing the internet to obtain additional data about individual users. Facebook has countered that it only uses the information to better serve its users in terms of content and targeted ads.
The proposed class-action lawsuit had initially been filed by four users in California — who also separately allege violations of state privacy laws — but had been dismissed by a federal judge in 2017, only to be revived on appeal in 2020 by the 9th Circuit and allowed to proceed.
According to The Hill, the 9th Circuit said in its ruling, “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.”
However, Facebook has argued that the Wiretap Act is not applicable in this particular circumstance, as it claims that it is actually a party to the various electronic communications it tracked by way of the aforementioned plug-ins used by countless other websites.
In its pleading to the Supreme Court for intervention, the social media platform said, “Facebook was not an uninvited interloper to a communication between two separate parties; it was a direct participant.”
With the Supreme Court declining to wade into this matter at this point in time, it appears that the $15 billion class-action lawsuit will now proceed to the next phase of building up a class of plaintiffs in the matter.
The Supreme Court could still end up ruling on this case at some point in the future, but at least for now, Facebook will be required to defend its dubious actions against the claims of an unknown number of potentially harmed individual users.