The fun, free, Wild West days of the Internet are over -- and in their place have come the quiet, controlled online suburbs of Facebook and other social media networks. As online society corrals itself into gated communities, we have the (reasonable) expectation of better privacy and protection ... But the reality is just the opposite. Ironically, the more organized the Internet becomes, the more at risk we all are of losing our personal privacy.
I'm an attorney -- one of the few in the country who bases an entire practice on Internet litigation. I've sued Google, CitySearch, Interactive/IMC and TicketMaster -- all for Internet-related offenses.
This week, I'm joining my colleagues at the country's largest conference of class action attorneys -- the 28th Annual Convention for the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA) -- in Las Vegas. While these attorneys are here to discuss a variety of issues and concerns, the one big one that is popping up on everyone's radar is online privacy.
Online privacy is a big issue already, but it's going to get even bigger. And here's why: people have more at stake online than ever before. We have our families, children, friends and pets stored online -- we shop online -- we bank online -- we "friend" those we agree with, and write ranting posts to those we don't -- we post explicit photos of ourselves and others online - and we make defamatory statements as well.
Our social lives, private lives, business lives, financial lives, children's lives and even pets lives are now more online, intertwined with the Web, than ever before. Therefore, we have a lot more to lose when that privacy is suddenly violated.
Enter Google. And Facebook. Two companies that are notorious for violating user privacy. Street View, Buzz, Beacon, "Like" buttons ... all programs promoted as exciting new features by these companies, all ultimately flawed because they took away an individual's right to control what is seen and known about him online.
Now enter the lawyers. This year alone, Google has been sued twice in class actions for violating users' privacy -- once for its Street View program, the other for its disastrous launch of Buzz. Late last year Facebook also settled a class action suit, to the tune of $9.5 million, for violating users' privacy with its "Beacon" program that shared information on individual's buying habits. It's in another class action this year over the "Like" buttons, which plaintiffs claim have misappropriated the names/likenesses of minors without parental consent.
And the complaints just keep on rolling in.
It may seem odd to the average person that there could even be such a thing as an Internet class action -- or, more specifically, a Facebook class action. But when one considers how much of our lives is at stake online -- and not just our lives, but that of our children too -- it begins to make sense.
In a way, it is almost as if online privacy has become the new lead-tainted toy. It's a new danger that appears out of nowhere -- there is no way to anticipate it or prevent it. There are no real authorities out there to help. No regulation. You're either lucky, or you're not. Consumers are left on their own, and, as a result, more of them are turning to attorneys for help.
There may come a time when the federal government creates a better system of Internet regulations and laws to safeguard user privacy -- or at least to define a reasonable expectation for it.
But until that happens, the Web's boundaries, and personal rights, will continue to be fought out in case law -- lawsuit by lawsuit, social program by social program.