Facebook “Sponsored Stories” Publicity Rights Lawsuit Survives Motion to Dismiss–Fraley v. Facebook

By Eric Goldman

Fraley v. Facebook, Inc., 2011 WL 6303898 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 16, 2012)

Because Facebook does so many things that aren’t in users’ interests, their “Sponsored Stories” program barely registers. Nevertheless, Sponsored Stories demonstrates why many people are burned out on Facebook. Facebook collects user preferences through its semantically ambiguous “like” button and then uses that data to show ads to the users’ friends with a seeming endorsement. Using my preferences does little to advance my relationship with my friends, but the implicit endorsement is designed to get my friends to investigate the ads, increasing the advertiser’s credibility and Facebook’s profits. So Sponsored Stories creates a zero-sum game: I as a user probably don’t get any value from the public presentation of my implicit endorsement (if anything, it might hurt my position with my friends), but Facebook and its advertisers benefit from it.

My response to Facebook’s rollout of Sponsored Stories was swift and decisive: I don’t “like” any businesses on Facebook or do any other activities on Facebook that I believe can trigger a Sponsored Story. (I would also categorically opt-out of being a part of Sponsored Stories if Facebook actually let me decide what I want to share with my friends, but Facebook doesn’t). Instead, if I want to make a commercial recommendation to my friends–something I do occasionally–I just share it directly in my status report. That way, I control the message I deliver to my friends, instead of letting Facebook or advertisers control how they communicate my interest to my friends. And the zero-sum nature of Facebook’s offering drives a deeper wedge into my relationship with Facebook, making me less willing to use Facebook generally and more receptive to alternatives.

To me, this marketplace response is adequate. To plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, Sponsored Stories gives another reason for a litigation fiesta. Remarkably, unlike so many other “privacy” lawsuits against Internet companies, this lawsuit survives the motion to dismiss–dramatically increasing the odds that Facebook will be writing a check for this so-called “feature.”

This is a rich and interesting opinion by Judge Koh that has something for everyone to “like” (or dislike). Some of the highlights:

Article III Standing

In a ruling that bucks a mini-trend, Judge Koh upholds the case from an Article III standing challenge. She says that violation of a statutory right (in this case, California’s publicity rights statute) automatically satisfies the actual harm requirement of Article III standing. The plaintiffs also satisfied the “particularized” and “concrete” requirements of Article III by explaining how the Sponsored Stories feature used their information.

She explicitly distinguishes numerous defense-side Article III wins (including her own recent iPhone application litigation and Low v. LinkedIn decisions) by noting the particular nature of the plaintiffs’ publicity rights claim. In this case, unlike the others, the plaintiffs are claiming that their endorsement had commercial value to help sell goods to others, compared to the situation in the prior cases where the commercial value of a user’s data came from theoretically improved marketing to the user him/herself. She says:

Plaintiffs here do not allege that their personal browsing histories have economic value to advertisers wishing to target advertisements at Plaintiffs themselves, nor that their demographic information has economic value for general marketing and analytics purposes. Rather, they allege that their individual, personalized endorsement of products, services, and brands to their friends and acquaintances has concrete, provable value in the economy at large, which can be measured by the additional profit Facebook earns from selling Sponsored Stories compared to its sale of regular advertisements.

She says later:

Plaintiffs assert that they have a tangible property interest in their personal endorsement of Facebook advertisers’ products to their Facebook Friends, and that Facebook has been unlawfully profiting from the nonconsensual exploitation of Plaintiffs’ statutory right of publicity. Thus, in the same way that celebrities suffer economic harm when their likeness is misappropriated for another’s commercial gain without compensation, Plaintiffs allege that they have been injured by Facebook’s failure to compensate them for the use of their personal endorsements because “[i]n essence, Plaintiffs are celebrities—to their friends.”

Clearly, Judge Koh is making a tricky intellectual move, and I bet it’s going to make some privacy advocates unhappy. There is unquestionably a street value to data about a person to improve the marketing to that person, just as there is unquestionably commercial value in gaining an endorsement from a consumer. It’s awkward to recognize one value and not the other. (Of course, in many of the precedent cases, there was only the possibility of data leakage; there wasn’t actually a showing that any marketer had bought the leaked data for commercial reuse).

However, Judge Koh’s fancy footwork rips open only a very small hole in the Article III jurisprudence. Her exception only applies where there’s a statutory publicity rights claim, and only when the defendant made a commercially-motivated endorsement. I’m sure we’ll see plaintiffs advance claims to take advantage of this ruling, but few plaintiffs will be able to style their claims accordingly.

In another tricky intellectual move, Judge Koh distinguishes Cohen v. Facebook, which dismissed a publicity rights claim based on Facebook’s “Friend Finder” service, because this case showed a more direct connection between the friend’s endorsement and the commercial value derived by Facebook. She also implies the lawyers did a better job here than in Cohen. I didn’t fully understand this distinction other than Judge Koh’s desire to reach a different result without disturbing the Cohen precedent.

47 USC 230

Facebook’s 230 defense is tricky. First, it seeks to invoke the defense against a publicity rights claim, which the 9th Circuit said was possible in Perfect 10 v. ccBill in a controversial statutory reading that has been rejected by every other court outside the Ninth Circuit. Judge Koh doesn’t touch that issue.

Second, Facebook seeks 230 protection for the ad copy it created automatically. The ad is based on a user action, the “Like,” plus various pieces of user content, but Facebook assembles it all into a package that the user never sees, blesses or necessarily even wants. We’ve had some other cases upholding 230 when a service provider is so intimately involved with creating the final content, such as the Carafano case, but Facebook is clearly playing at the edge of the statutory immunity.

Judge Koh rules that Facebook is over that line and doesn’t get the immunity. Unfortunately, she does so by saying that Facebook is partially the information content provider of the ads in question. She references the dispositive allegations:

Plaintiffs allege that Facebook creates content by deceptively mistranslating members’ actions, such as clicking on a ‘Like’ button on a company’s page, into the words “Plaintiff likes [Brand],” and further combining that text with Plaintiff’s photograph, the company’s logo, and the label “Sponsored Story.” … Plaintiffs allege that they themselves have no control over whether to post a particular company’s name or logo, and that Facebook maintains sole control over whether to display a Sponsored Story at all.

Personally, I’d be much more sympathetic to Facebook’s position if users had the specific ability to “like” a business page without simultaneously authorizing the Sponsored Story. Because Facebook’s controls are insufficiently granular, Facebook automatically interprets a “like” as both a statement of user attitudes and as a green light to create the Sponsored Story. In contrast, imagine that when a user “liked” a business page, Facebook prepared the ad copy for the Sponsored Story, presented it to the user, and asked the user if the user wanted to publish the ad copy to his/her friends. At this point, I would feel much more strongly that the ad copy really was the user’s words. Naturally, Facebook doesn’t give users this level of control over the words being put into their mouths.

On the other hand, consider an alternative example where a website both publishes UGC on its site and then syndicates the content to third party sites. It’s my position that the website gets 230 for both acts of publication, even if the user never expressly green-lighted the syndication (so long as the user-to-website license permitted the syndication). See, e.g., Prickett v. infoUSA. Based on Judge Koh’s explication, I’m not exactly sure why Facebook crossed the 230 line while some of these other situations probably don’t.

Facebook responded that its activities didn’t make it a content provider but just represented traditional editorial functions. The court rejects the argument, citing this allegation:

Plaintiffs allege not only that Facebook rearranged text and images provided by members, but moreover that by grouping such content in a particular way with third-party logos, Facebook transformed the character of Plaintiffs’ words, photographs, and actions into a commercial endorsement to which they did not consent.

In the context of this case, I see her point. Sadly, the opinion’s wording will give false hope to a slew of plaintiffs who will argue that the website’s presentation of third party content constituted some type of unauthorized endorsement. It will take a few cases to burst the plaintiffs’ bubbles about a new exception to 230.

The Statutory Publicity Rights Claim (CA Civil Code 3344)

Facebook took a few cracks at the claim, all of which were unsuccessful:

Newsworthiness. The publicity rights statute does not restrict using someone’s personality “in connection with any news.” This is a backdoor First Amendment defense, as what constitutes news tracks First Amendment jurisprudence on “matters of public interest.” This defense seemed like a hail-mary for Facebook–a user “liking” a page is clearly “new” information to the marketplace, but it’s not “news” in either the traditional or First Amendment sense. The court seems unimpressed, saying that even if a user “liking” a commercial product is news to that user’s social network, using that information commercially drops out of the exception. I wasn’t persuaded by the judge’s distinction here, but then again Facebook’s argument about what constituted “news” was obviously tendentious.

I was a little disappointed that Judge Koh sidestepped some interesting lurking issues about what is “news” in the modern environment, where all of us are publishers to our local communities and we as publishers can have significant clout in a small community. Some academic literature in the 1990s discussed these issues in the Internet context, but it might be worth revisiting as a paper topic. Judge Koh also sidestepped the intellectually interesting issue of whether opinions about marketplace goods are “newsworthy,” something that I strongly believe to be the case in the context of anti-SLAPP laws.

Consent. Facebook argued that users consented to Sponsored Stories as part of its terms of use. The plaintiffs retorted that Sponsored Stories didn’t exist when they signed up, so they couldn’t have consented to it. The court says there’s a factual dispute which prevents a motion to dismiss.

Injury. Facebook argued that non-celebrities have to show economic injury as part of their 3344 prima facie case. The court rejects this distinction, saying “[i]n a society dominated by reality television shows, YouTube, Twitter, and online social networking sites, the distinction between a “celebrity” and a “non-celebrity” seems to be an increasingly arbitrary one.” Furthermore, the plaintiffs did allege injury by showing that their endorsements were valuable to Facebook, which helps distinguish this case from the Cohen “Friend Finder” precedent. I liked this quote:

While traditionally, advertisers had little incentive to exploit a non-celebrity’s likeness because such endorsement would carry little weight in the economy at large, Plaintiffs’ allegations suggest that advertisers’ ability to conduct targeted marketing has now made friend endorsements “a valuable marketing tool,” just as celebrity endorsements have always been so considered.

For more on this point, see my Online Word of Mouth paper.

Unfair Competition Law (UCL)

Normally, we’d expect the UCL claim to be tossed because the plaintiffs can’t make the required showing that they lost “money or property.” Numerous Internet privacy cases have reached that conclusion. Judge Koh makes the same intellectual move she did with Article III standing, saying that publicity rights are different than other privacy torts. She says: “[t]o the extent Plaintiffs allege they can prove that their endorsement of commercial products to their Facebook Friends has concrete, quantifiable value for which they are entitled to compensation, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have properly alleged loss of money or property for purposes of establishing standing under the UCL.” I wonder if plaintiffs can make that showing because there’s no existing market for consumer-to-consumer endorsements, but it’s enough to survive the motion to dismiss. In particular, she says California’s statutory damages for publicity rights violations aren’t enough to demonstrate the value of the endorsements.

Judge Koh also concludes that plaintiffs properly alleged that Facebook’s activities were unlawful, unfair and fraudulent (in the latter case, because Facebook allegedly overclaimed users’ abilities to opt-out of Sponsored Stories).

Unjust Enrichment

Recent caselaw makes it even clearer that there’s no separate cause of action for unjust enrichment; instead, it’s just a synonym for restitution. As a result, the court tosses this claim.

Conclusion

This is not a good ruling for Facebook, but I can’t really feel too sorry for it. Facebook has been playing fast-and-loose with the law in many different contexts (see, e.g., its FTC bust), and Sponsored Stories is no different. Before rolling it out, Facebook surely knew that the Sponsored Stories offering was on murky legal ground. It can’t be surprised that it didn’t get an easy dismissal.

Even so, if it gets that far, Facebook may yet win this case. Judge Koh has made it clear that she’s a tough customer, but Facebook has plenty of power to its remaining arguments. Nevertheless, I’m reasonably confident it won’t get that far. Given the importance of maximizing ad revenues and its desire to clean up legal issues in advance of an IPO, it seems more likely that Facebook will cut a deal with plaintiffs’ counsel. I imagine Facebook might try to do a settlement like the Facebook Beacon settlement that results in minimal restrictive covenants, a chunk of money into the lawyers’ hands, and a chunk of money that doesn’t get into users’ hands but instead goes into something like Facebook’s privacy foundation.

UPDATE: Facebook is blazing ahead with its Sponsored Stories offering, moving the Sponsored Stories module into the newsfeed instead of on the side. (And with almost-invisible disclosure that it’s an ad). Surely this means Facebook plans to win this lawsuit or to settle up. I’m voting the latter.

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