Two renowned Baltimore plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook Inc., claiming that the world’s most popular social networking website has violated federal and California laws designed to protect the privacy of consumers.
William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. and Peter G. Angelos allege Facebook has surreptitiously used online tracking technology, or “cookies,” to keep tabs on its registered users’ activities, even when they have logged off of the website. Using this technology, Facebook has been able to see what other websites its members visit, Murphy and Angelos claim in the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Northern California at San Jose.
The alleged Internet spying violates the Federal Wiretap Act, the Federal Stored Electronic Communications Act and the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which ban the interception of wire or electronic communication and the accessing of electronic communications without authorization, the lawsuit states. The alleged activity also violates the California Penal Code and the state’s Unfair Competition Law, the complaint adds.
“We, like a lot of people, not just lawyers, are outraged by Facebook’s intentional collection of data that shocks the conscience [and by] the dossier they are keeping on all their customers,” said Murphy, the founding partner of Murphy PA.
Facebook denies the allegations.
Angelos, of the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, did not return telephone messages seeking comment Wednesday.
The lawsuit names as its initial plaintiffs Christopher Simon, of Baltimore, and Laura Maguire, of Charlotte, N.C.
Murphy said Wednesday that he has no concerns about having to litigate a case about 3,000 miles from his office.
“We litigate cases all over the country, so that really wasn’t an issue for us,” he said. “We like big cases.”
The number of potential class members is high, as Facebook has an estimated 150 million users in the United States. The company is valued at between $75 billion and $100 billion, according to recent published reports.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified actual, compensatory and punitive damages to be determined after a jury trial. The plaintiffs also seek attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses, and an injunction preventing Facebook from installing cookies on its users’ computers that track their Internet use without their knowledge or consent.
Murphy said he and Facebook have not discussed an out-of-court settlement, nor does he necessarily expect such a discussion.
“We go into every case with the expectation that the case will be tried, and we only take cases in which we are confident that we will win at trial,” Murphy said.
Facebook expressed similar confidence in a statement issued Wednesday.
“We believe this case is without merit and we will fight it vigorously,” the company said.
Murphy and Angelos are joined in the lawsuit by San Francisco lawyers Eric H. Gibbs and David Stein of Girard Gibbs LLP.
The filing of the complaint follows allegations from U.S. Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, that Facebook has been tracking users’ visits to other sites. The congressmen sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission in September urging the agency to investigate.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Consumer Action and the Electronic Privacy Information Center made a similar request to FTC later that month.
Facebook is no stranger to the commission.
In late November, Facebook reached a tentative settlement of unrelated FTC charges that the company failed to keep privacy promises to its users by sharing their personal information with other companies. Under the pending agreement, Facebook must obtain their users’ express consent before sharing information.
Facebook admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement, which completed a public comment period in December and awaits final approval by FTC.
“Facebook is obligated to keep the promises about privacy that it makes to its hundreds of millions of users,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in announcing the tentative settlement in November. “Facebook’s innovation does not have to come at the expense of consumer privacy.”