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Public Citizen Appeals Settlement That Allows Facebook To Violate Minors’ Privacy Rights

Sept. 24, 2013

Public Citizen Appeals Settlement That Allows Facebook To Violate Minors’ Privacy Rights

Under Settlement Approved by District Court, Facebook Can Continue Violating Privacy Law in Seven States

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A class-action settlement between Facebook and its users should not have been approved by a federal court because it allows Facebook to continue using minors’ images without their parents’ consent, in violation of laws in seven states, Public Citizen said as it filed a notice of appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today.

In early May, Public Citizen urged the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to reject the proposed settlement because it would allow Facebook to continue to use minors’ images in ads such as Facebook’s “sponsored stories” program without parental consent — a practice that is illegal in California, Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. In its appeal of the Aug. 26 approval of the settlement, Public Citizen is representing five parents with children ages 13 to 16, in Virginia, Tennessee, New York and California.

The lawsuit over Facebook’s “sponsored stories” ad program was filed in March 2011, and the parties’ lawyers proposed a settlement earlier this year. Under the ad program, when a Facebook member clicks a button to indicate he or she “likes” a company that advertises on Facebook, Facebook creates an ad that displays the Facebook member’s name and image in a manner that suggests the person endorses the product. Facebook does not seek the consent of members to use their images for advertising and does not seek parental consent when the users are children.

“The settlement has several provisions that purport to protect minors, but those protections all require the minors to take affirmative steps to provide Facebook with information about their parents,” said Scott Michelman, the Public Citizen attorney representing the families. “If the minors don’t do that, Facebook will use the minors’ images based only on a representation of the minor giving his or her parents’ consent — and a minor’s representation of parental consent is no substitute for actual parental consent.”

Facebook’s privacy practices have recently come under scrutiny in other respects, as well. Another Facebook ad program, called “sponsored ads,” made headlines recently when the image of a Canadian teenager appeared in an ad on the social network months after she had committed suicide after a sexual assault and ensuing cyberbullying. Glen Canning, the father of the 17-year-old Rehteaeh Parsons, said he was disgusted to see the photo.

“The point of parental consent laws is to interpose the decision of a responsible adult between the minor and a large corporation like Facebook that might exploit the minors’ images for profit,” said Michelman.

If the objectors prevail in the appeal, it will be sent back to the district court for further proceedings, which could include another attempt at settlement or potentially a trial.

Public Citizen is representing Arlington, Va., resident John Schachter (on behalf of himself and his 13-year-old son); Hermitage, Tenn., resident Kim Parsons (on behalf of herself and her 13-year-old daughter); Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Margaret Becker (on behalf of herself and her 15-year-old daughter); Berkeley, Calif., resident Ann Leonard (on behalf of herself and her 13-year-old daughter), and Annandale, Va., resident Michael Carome (on behalf of his 16-year-old son). (Leonard serves on Public Citizen’s board and Carome is a Public Citizen staff member.)

Get more information about the case and see Public Citizen’s objections in the district court.