By The Prophet of Life
Have you ever Googled yourself? If not, have you ever searched your name and found information on yourself? Was that information totally accurate or did you find some things that were incorrect? A case before the U.S. supreme Court today may change the face of background checks and web searches.
In a case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court recently, A man named Thomas Robins is suing Spokeo for publishing false information about him. This is despite the fact that he cannot prove there was any actual damage to him as a result of that publication. Can he really do that, you ask? He can if he has grounds. According to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court he does have grounds.
One day, six years ago, Robins found his profile on Spokeo. It stated that he was a wealthy, married man in his fifties with a degree and a couple of children. Robins, however, was a unemployed single man in his mid twenties. Robins was outraged that Spokeo could have gotten his information so completely wrong. He saw the potential consequences if prospective employers or romance partners looked up the same profile.
Robins filed suit under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a law passed by congress in the 1970’s. The law states that credit reporting must be fair and accurate. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that Robins does have grounds because he filed suit as a violation of the law and a violation of the law is still a violation whether or not there is any harm. Spokeo as well as Google, Facebook and a myriad of other reporting, commerce, social networks and web based data firms have long been operating using the logic that actual harm as a result of incorrect information had to be proven are all contesting the Ninth Court Ruling and the entire data mining industry is anxiously awaiting the results of this case as it appears before the Supreme Court. One reason is, Robins filed it as a class action suit.
Upon hearing arguments in the case, the Supreme Court Justices seem to be split. The Four conservative Justices seem to be leaning towards the arguments taken by data brokers, that actual proof of harm must be demonstrated, that there must be concrete proof of an injury. This was illustrated by Justice Alito who made a statement that the plaintiff only showed speculative harm during inquiry of the plaintiff in which he asked if there was proof that any one other than Robins had seen his Spokeo profile. Chief Justice Roberts also stated that the court has a legion of cases which say a plaintiff must have an actual injury to have standing to bring suit.
The Liberal four Justices seemed, by their questioning and statements, to be more sympathetic towards Robins cause. Justice Kagan indicated she would view finding erroneous information about herself online as a concrete injury. Justice Sotomayor agreed that there was potential injury if potential dates looked up Robin’s profile and saw that he was “married” even if it wasn’t true. Justice Kennedy, the usual swing vote on split cases, asked questions to lawyers on both sides of the issue and asked if credit reporting agencies might have less lattitude than other agencies to argue that a person wasn’t harmed by the misreported information.
The question at the heart of this case is constitutional; whether or not Congress can pass a law which gives people the right to sue and win damages even if they haven’t suffered any provable, concrete harm. The corporations who have been getting away with publishing erroneous information say that congress cannot pass any such law. They say that violation of a statute should not be considered as a harm in any court and that Congress cannot pass a law that allows it to be.
Robins and consumer advocacy groups believe differently. They believe that violation of a statue in and of itself, does constitute harm. They believe that Congress does have the right to pass laws that reflect this and that all laws involving consumer protection reflect this.
If Robins wins, it could send reverberations throughout the internet. Every social media network and data mining company could be sued by people who they have published incorrect information on. All of these people could literally join the lawsuit. Further, any companies that sell information, (like Spokeo does), could in turn be sued by individuals and companies who paid for information and got some false information.
If he loses, especially if the Supreme Court rules to limit lawsuits by consumers, every consumer loses. The corporations will continue doing business as usual. They will continue to publish erroneous information on you and me and we will have fewer avenues to stop them. The big money, big corporate bullies will win and the rest of us will be laying bloody on the playground of life.
This one little lawsuit, could bankrupt entire corporations, keep entire law firms in business and change data collection and verification policies throughout the nation. It could do one more thing. It could make sure that those collecting data on you get it right and possibly force companies that collect data on you to get your permission and a signed release from you in order to publish your information because if the company is reputable that will be the only way it can insure that you won’t sue them into the stone age if they get something wrong.
Sometimes, congress passes laws that actually protect us. It would be nice if suing to enforce them yields tangible results. Mr. Robins, I, for one am rooting for you.
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