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How an Experimental Billion-Dollar Privacy Lawsuit Could Clobber Facebook


What if law enforcement was outsourced to class action attorneys? Don't imagine. It's happening as the Cambridge Analytica scandal becomes Mark Zuckerberg's legal nightmare.

Less than one week. That's all the time needed for Jay Edelson to swing into action in March and file suit upon splashy headlines that Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook users in the interest of swinging the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Edelson was hardly the only class-action lawyer rushing to allege a huge violation of trust on the part of the world's biggest social network. But not every attorney is known to be a corporate America bogeyman, notorious for picking fights with large and small companies over the seedier sides of online life, including surreptitious information collection and the hawking of personal data to occasionally shady third parties.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal gave the 45-year-old bespectacled attorney with a passing resemblance to Steve Jobs an opportunity to go to court with a new story of tech infidelity. One that begins in 2014, when a Russian-American working for Cambridge Analytica created a personality quiz app called thisisyourdigitallife. About 270,000 users downloaded the app. Cambridge Analytica parlayed its modest access to the lives of ordinary Facebook users and their family and friends into more and more information — enough to begin psychologically profiling American voters and then bombarding them with phony and real news.

And Facebook's role?

"This kind of mass data collection was not only allowed but encouraged by Facebook, which sought to keep developers building on its platform and provide companies with all the tools they need to influence and manipulate user behavior," states the March 23 lawsuit filed by Edelson. "That's because Facebook is not a social media company; it is the largest data-mining operation in existence."

Sharp words, but Edelson obviously wasn't alone in expressing that sentiment. In addition to the many lawsuits filed over Cambridge Analytica, lawmakers have expressed outrage that Facebook hasn't taken user privacy seriously enough. And millions of consumers have decided to ditch the platform. But Edelson's lawsuit is notable — and not just for what the complaint says and the prospect that Facebook may pay through its digital nose.

Rather, if Edelson pulls this suit off, he'll be doing so in a brazenly new way, the type of achievement that could attract imitators from the ranks of other attorneys currently struggling to hold companies liable for privacy breaches. That scenario, in turn, could spur federal digital privacy legislation in the new year that could become a headache for CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

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