Court Finds Social Network Add-On Violated Spam, Hacking Laws

Court Finds Social Network Add-On Violated Spam, Hacking Laws

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In a potentially troublesome decision, a federal district court has found that a start-up violated anti-spam and computer crime laws by creating and marketing a browser to let users view their social networking accounts in one place. The case demonstrates the difficulties facing those who seek to empower users to interact with closed services like Facebook in new and innovative ways.

In Facebook v. Power Ventures, Facebook sued a small company that created a tool for users to access and aggregate their personal information across social networking sites. In 2010, the court ruled that Power didn’t access Facebook “without permission” under California computer crime law when it violated Facebook’s terms of use, agreeing with arguments we raised in an amicus brief (pdf).

Unfortunately, the latest round of the case has taken a downward turn in ways that could have serious implications for other innovators and users.

First, the court gave a tremendous cudgel to Facebook against commercial users who displease it when it decided that Power violated the federal CAN-SPAM Act by sending “misleading” messages. These messages encouraged users to send Facebook “Event” invitations to their friends to promote Power’s service. As EFF pointed out in an amicus brief (pdf), though, the allegedly “misleading” elements of the message are supplied by Facebook itself—and can’t be changed by users. This means that any user who sends a commercial message on Facebook is technically in violation of the law, since it appears to come from Facebook. The CAN-SPAM Act, passed in 2003, simply doesn’t contemplate closed systems where the service provider controls many elements of a message.                  More

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