Everybody has a favorite social network and at least a few that they’d really prefer not to deal with. It’s easy to write off Snapchat as annoying or complain about the overabundance of hashtags and sponsored posts on Instagram, but Facebook is harder to write off. (All of your friends are on it, after all, and it’s virtually inescapable online.) There are plenty of legitimate complaints about Facebook. And over the years, some of those complaints have been heard in court thanks to the numerous lawsuits that have been brought against Facebook.
Most people (at least those who have watched The Social Network) are aware that Mark Zuckerberg had to contend with a lawsuit brought by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss over the question of who really invented Facebook. And Paul Ceglia later sued Zuckerberg for ownership of Facebook, Bloomberg reports. But the tussle over ownership of what would become the world’s most popular social network isn’t the only legal battle that Zuckerberg has had to fight over the years.
In fact, plenty of people have sued the social network over the years. Facebook’s handling of user data has often been an issue, as has the sometimes wide gulf between what privacy legislation seems to allow and what Facebook has tried to implement. Read on to check out some of the reasons why people have sued Facebook over the years. The lawsuits range from fascinating to ridiculous. And more than anything, they illustrate the way that Facebook has become not just central to our lives online, but just about inescapable when you live your life on the internet.
1. Facebook allows advertisers to exclude people by “ethnic affinity”
One of the most recent — and high-profile — lawsuits brought against Facebook involves alleged discriminatory policies that the plaintiffs say violate the U.S. Federal Housing Act of 1964. As Ars Technica reports, ProPublica published a story explaining that Facebook’s advertising system enables ads, including those for housing, to exclude users with specific “ethnic affinities.” The proposed class-action lawsuit alleges that the policy puts Facebook in violation of the civil rights legislation, which prohibits housing advertisements from discrimination based on race, gender, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.
2. Facebook bans “hateful, obscene, or threatening” content
Another recent lawsuit involving Facebook elicited a very different reaction from civil rights groups than the one that stemmed from ProPublica’s investigation. And while it doesn’t involve a suit brought directly against Facebook, it does demonstrate the diversity of ideologies in Facebook’s user base. Ars Technica reports that the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Jihad Watch sued U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in July. AFDI, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as an anti-Muslim hate group, was co-founded by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, who also founded Jihad Watch. Both groups have seen their materials regularly removed from Facebook. They argue that their First Amendment rights have been violated, and target Lynch because of her power to “enforce” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a civil (rather than criminal) statute that limits libel and other civil suits against websites, service providers, and online publishers. Geller wrote that she was “suing Facebook” because of “the outrageous bias of Facebook’s speech policies,” which prohibit “hateful, obscene, or threatening” content.
3. Facebook didn’t remove all content related to Palestinian violence
In one of the more tragic turns of Facebook-related events, the families of five victims in Palestinian attacks filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Facebook. According to the Verge, the suit alleges that the social network “knowingly provided material support and resources to Hamas,” which is the Gaza-based group that the U.S., the EU, and Israel classify as a terrorist organization. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that Facebook should be held liable for Palestinian attacks carried out in Israel because “Hamas has used and relied on Facebook’s online social network platform and communications services as among its most important tools to facilitate and carry out its terrorist activity.” Israeli officials said that much of the violence had been stoked by Facebook, and leaders around the world have called on Facebook to do more to police extremist content and propaganda.
4. Facebook scans users’ private messages
According to a lawsuit certified for class action in Northern California District Court, Facebook may have violated federal privacy laws by scanning users’ private messages. As The Verge reports, the allegations center on the social network’s practice of scanning and logging the URLs that are sent through Facebook’s messaging system. The scans are used for anti-malware protection and industry-standard searches for child pornography, but are also reportedly used for marketing purposes. The plaintiffs claim that Facebook scans these URLs for advertising and user-targeting data, and that by maintaining those records in searchable form, Facebook violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the California Invasion of Privacy Act.
5. Facebook jeopardized users’ privacy when transferring data between the U.S. and the EU
The Huffington Post reports that Austrian law student Max Schrems gained notoriety for suing Facebook on behalf of 25,000 users, eventually striking down the framework that underpins the data transfers of thousands of companies (and jeopardizes users’ privacy in the process). The suit led Europe’s highest court to overturn a longstanding agreement which was used by major companies like Facebook to transfer data across the Atlantic. The court ruled that the agreement didn’t adequately protect the privacy rights of European citizens, and the lawsuit led to new rules that affect more than 4,000 different companies, says Bloomberg.
6. Facebook didn’t inform investors about the risks of users switching to mobile
Facebook users aren’t the only people to sue the social networking giant. Investors filed a class-action lawsuit over the company’s $16 billion initial public offering. As the Financial Times reported in 2015, investors claimed that Facebook hid concerns about its growth forecasts ahead of the IPO. The company allegedly neglected to inform investors of concerns that consumers were switching from desktop to mobile, where it was unclear if the platform could generate enough advertising revenue. But a combination of improvements to the app and marketers’ quick adoption of targeted advertising enabled the company to grow mobile revenue. Facebook now generates more than three-quarters of its total advertising from ads displayed on mobile devices.
7. Facebook’s data usage conflicts with EU law
Privacy group Europe vs. Facebook filed a class-action suit against Facebook in 2014. TechCrunch reported that the suit targeted “unlawful acts” by Facebook. That included data use policy which was allegedly invalid under EU law, the absence of effective consent for many types of data used, support of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, tracking users on external websites, monitoring and analyzing users, the introduction of Graph Search, and the unauthorized sharing of user data with external apps. The suit invited any adult, non-commercial Facebook users from outside of the U.S. and Canada to join, and gained 11,000 participants in its first weekend.
8. Facebook tracks users’ web usage
In 2012, law firm Stewarts Law U.S. announced that it was combining an eye-popping 21 privacy lawsuits against Facebook into a single, class-action suit. As CNET reported at the time, the suit charged that the social network violated user privacy by tracking consumers’ web usage. The suit asked for $15 billion, a sum the firm arrived at via the U.S. Wiretap Act, which “provides statutory damages of the greater of $100 per violation per day, up to $10,000, per Facebook user.”
9. Facebook terminates user accounts, sometimes without a clear reason why
It’s no mystery that Facebook bans users when they violate the platform’s terms of service and harass other users. But at least one user has sued Facebook for terminating her account. As Forbes reported at the time, Maryland woman Karen Beth Young filed a complaint against Facebook in California alleging breach of contract, violation of her constitutional rights, and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Young has bipolar disorder). The case was eventually dismissed, in part because the court ruled that the ADA is inapplicable to Facebook because it’s a website and not a physical place.
10. Facebook uses tracking cookies
As PCMag reported in 2011, Facebook was sued over its use of tracking cookies, which plaintiffs argued was in violation of federal wiretap and electronics communications laws. The suit was filed in California district court by six Facebook users, and the suit asked for damages as well as an order that would prohibit Facebook from installing cookies that track users after they log out of the social network. In the years since, we’ve all become aware of the fact that Facebook is tracking our activity around the internet, whether or not we’re logged in to Facebook or are even members of the social network. But many users found the practice “creepy” then, and we’d venture to guess that many haven’t warmed up to the practice even now.
11. Facebook shares user information with third parties
Users have long been skeptical of the way that Facebook uses their data. All the way back in 2009, a group of Facebook users filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the social network violated California consumer privacy laws, reports CNET. The lawsuit was filed in California’s Orange County Superior Court and accused Facebook of violating California laws by disseminating private information to third parties for commercial purposes. The suit stated, “Plaintiffs and the general public desire and expect a level of privacy, which Facebook has failed to satisfy under its current policies, procedures, practices, and technology.”
12. Facebook showed “scammy” ads in games
To anyone who remembers what Facebook was like in the heyday of Facebook games, it likely comes as no surprise that Facebook was named in a class-action suit regarding the scammy ads that were displayed in Zynga games on Facebook’s platforms. As Gawker reported at the time, a class-action lawsuit sought damages of upwards of $5 million for users who were scammed by the ads. The ads, which were displayed in games like Mafia Wars and Farmville, tricked users into signing up for unauthorized cell phone charges or expensive mail-order products by advertising them as free offers or trails, or as part of an online quiz.