Robins argued that the false profile harmed his job prospects. His lawyers claimed Spokeo had violated his rights under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Spokeo, a Pasadena-based company, sought to dismiss the case. It argued Robins couldn’t prove that he’d actually experienced any tangible harm as a result of the inaccuracies. But a federal court rejected that argument. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the lower court decision.
Now four Silicon Valley firms -- eBay, Google, Yahoo and Facebook -- have jointly filed a brief in support of Spokeo.com, while some consumer advocacy organizations are rallying behind Robins.
On Nov. 2, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case. A decision is expected by June 2016.
The big tech firms supporting Spokeo argued that a ruling in Robins' favor could incentivize class-action lawsuits targeting deep-pocketed tech companies, even in cases where no one was harmed:
"If any of the millions of individuals who interact with [Google, Facebook and Yahoo!] is willing (or is enticed by a plaintiff’s attorney) to allege that a generalized practice or act violated a law providing a private cause of action and statutory damages, then she could launch a putative class action on behalf of herself and millions of other 'similarly situated' users. She could pursue a multi-billion dollar statutory damages claim despite the lack of injury to herself or any other class member."
Robins is represented by Chicago-based Edelson PC, a prominent law firm that recently opened an office in San Francisco’s startup-saturated SoMa district.
The firm specializes in privacy law, and has targeted tech giants, including Google and Facebook, with class-action suits in the past. A New York Times profile dubbed Jay Edelson Silicon Valley’s “least friended man.”
Chris Dore, a partner with the firm, said Robins' case was filed after the firm received a high volume of complaints alleging inaccurate profile data displayed on Spokeo.com.
"Any type of false information can cause distinct harm," Dore said. For example, he said, imagine a scenario where you've met someone via an online dating website and "you find out the person you’re going on a date with appears to be married."
While Edelson PC’s cases have served to highlight a range of hot-button privacy issues in the face of the rapidly evolving tech landscape, the majority are settled out of court -- Edelson claims to have won $1 billion in settlements.
But rather than settle the Robins suit, Spokeo has opted to push back, raising the stakes for both sides.
“This is one of those many issues that seem to be boring or narrow, and end up being really huge,” explained G.S. Hans, policy counsel and director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in San Francisco. “A ruling could be really broad that applies not just to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but potentially to other laws.”
Since the question at issue is whether Robins has standing to sue, Hans said a ruling in the tech company’s favor could “open up a can of worms,” possibly even affecting cases brought under federal environmental protections or safeguards meant to guarantee fairness in housing or lending practices. One of the organizations rallying behind Robins, therefore, is the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Spokeo originated in 2006 with a team of young entrepreneurs who came out of Stanford. An amicus brief on behalf of the Center for Democracy and Technology highlights the growing data collection industry it represents:
“A growing data brokerage industry has access not only to public record information, but countless other data points about consumers that are used for marketing, risk mitigation, background investigation, and more. These companies — including Spokeo — gather information from online and offline sources to create detailed profiles about consumers.”
In 2012, Spokeo was targeted by the Federal Trade Commission for marketing data to human resources firms and companies that conduct background screenings, allegedly without following regulations established to protect consumers under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The tech firm paid $800,000 to settle the charges.