If someone posts false information about you on the internet can you sue them even if the false information didn’t cause you any harm? That’s the question the U.S. Supreme Court is struggling with as they hear the case of Spokeo v. Robins.
Thomas Robins discovered that “people search engine” Spokeo had published inaccurate information about his age, marital status and other personal stats. This inaccurate reporting is a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, so Mr. Robins sued for damages. Trouble is, he wasn’t “damaged” in any concrete way. He didn’t lose his job or his wife and as far as we know, he didn’t even suffer any embarrassment. But does that mean it’s okay for Spokeo to post whatever they want without having to pay the piper or in this case the Plaintiff?
The case went up the legal ladder and is now in the hands of the Supreme Court where it’s just as muddled as it was before. According to legal experts, the Supreme Court judges don’t agree on whether or not the violation alone is cause to sue or whether a plaintiff has to prove he was tangibly injured because of the violation.
Chief Justice Roberts brought up a hypothetical to test the theory. If a person has an unlisted phone number and a company posts that phone number online, can the person sue? What if the number associated with the person is wrong? How can a website violate a person’s right to privacy when they haven’t revealed that person’s true phone number, address, etc.? Quite the paradox.
What does this mean for you? Plenty.
If your company collects and uses customer data (and what company doesn’t), the results of this case could affect how you handle that data in the future. If the court sides with Robins, they’ll be opening the flood gates to all kinds of frivolous lawsuits.
Lawsuits are never good for a company’s reputation. Even if you win, you lose. That’s why Google, Facebook, eBay, LinkedIn and Netflix combined forces and asked the court to side with them.
If the Supreme Court does not affirm the necessity for plaintiffs to allege factual injuries, the tech industry “will continue to be wrongly subjected to the substantial expense of defending such actions and the risks of massive classwide statutory damages or burdensome injunctive relief, creating a strong incentive to settle even the most frivolous suits,” the companies said.
Now take off your business hat and look at this from the consumer side. Inaccurate profile information can do all kinds of harm to your reputation. At the very least, it’s confusing and at worst it makes you look like a liar and can lead to some embarrassing confrontations.
Suppose you have a Masters Degree in Business Administration but LinkedIn mistakenly says you didn’t graduate from college. You may not lose your job over it but you’ll never know how many people saw that and decided not to contact you.
If the Supreme Court sides with Spokeo, you’ll have to prove you were injured by the mistakes in order to get your day in court. But how can you prove something when you don’t even know it’s happening?
No matter which side the court sides with, it won’t be as cut and dried as we’re all making it sound. This case is just the next step on the path to figuring out how our current laws and the Constitution fit in with social media, digital data collection and online security.
Hang on to your reputations everybody, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.