On Friday, a judge ruled that LinkedIn must face a lawsuit brought by customers who claim LinkedIn accessed their external email accounts like Gmail and Yahoo in order to bombard their contacts with unwanted LinkedIn invites.
You’d need to read LinkedIn’s terms of service closely to learn that when you give LinkedIn access to your email accounts, the company pulls data from your emails to recruit new members. And you’d have to read through a lot of verbiage to discover that LinkedIn warns you that it will send out invites that look like they’re from you. Nowhere does it explicitly warn you that LinkedIn will follow up with repeated invites, making you look like a needy friend.
(Oh, you didn’t even bother to read the terms of service? Well, then those spammy invites your friends received in their email are all on you.)
This is the crux of a lawsuit brought by a group of users that raises questions about how much data companies can collect, and what they do with that information. U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh said Friday in her ruling that LinkedIn members who sued the company can pursue damages, as they try to expand their case to include other users, Bloomberg reported.
Koh rejected some wild conspiracy-theory claims LinkedIn members advanced that the company was somehow “hacking” into their email accounts, finding they’d consented to give it access.
“We will continue to contest the remaining claims, as we believe they have no merit,” a LinkedIn spokesperson told ReadWrite.
Giving Up Our Privacy, One Click At A Time
And yet there is merit to the idea that something is happening when we use online services like LinkedIn that puts our digital lives out of our control.
The suit hangs on the fact that LinkedIn users consent once to sending an email. The plaintiffs allege that LinkedIn then sends numerous follow-up invitations to people’s contacts, a practice Koh said in her ruling was grounds to move forward with the lawsuit.
Soon, a lawsuit like this one might be a dinosaur.
An increasing trend is for corporations to erode not just our privacy, but our right to protest these invasions, by taking advantage of terms of service—implied contracts with customers—to shield them from lawsuits like this.
Instead, they rewrite their terms to favor procedures like mandatory arbitration, a process which many legal advocates believe favor corporations. Dropbox made this change in February (though it allows users to opt out of the change).
Two Supreme Court decisions in 2011 and 2013 have made it possible for companies to quietly revise the terms of service users rarely read, in an effort to forestall any consequences for abusing user privacy, like those alleged in the LinkedIn suit.
As Lina Khan of the Washington Monthly notes:
The decisions culminate a thirty-year trend during which the judiciary, including initially some prominent liberal jurists, has moved to eliminate courts as a means for ordinary Americans to uphold their rights against companies. The result is a world where corporations can evade accountability and effectively skirt swaths of law, pushing their growing power over their consumers and employees past a tipping point.
This could theoretically put us in a world where Facebook could quietly change its terms of service to make the private information of its more than one billion users public—and there’d be almost nothing you could do about it, save quit in a huff.
See also: Why I Can’t Quit Facebook
It’s easy to lecture people about how important it is read the fine print you’re consenting to before sharing your private data. But we have lives to live, work to do, and families to see—all higher priorities than wading through Internet legalese.
And it’s not like we have any choice about these terms if we want to use a popular website. There’s no negotiating terms—only abject surrender.
I know I’m guilty of agreeing to terms of an app or website that I haven’t fully read.
But cases like LinkedIn’s contact-email lawsuit serve as a reminder for all: The scales are tipped against us when it comes to protecting our privacy. We constantly trade convenience for control over our own online lives. And soon, we may have no recourse.
Image by Isengardt