Facebook Legal Issues

Facebook, the popular social media platform, has been the subject of multiple controversies in their 13-year history. There have been lawsuits and settlements over the years, but in the last few months, things seem to be really heating up.

As Congress investigates reports of Russia’s use of the Facebook advertising tool to spread fake news and inflammatory stories, many experts wonder if external regulation is in their future. I don’t have any clear answers to that question, but the more I read about Facebook’s history, the less convinced I am they can or will be able to control this beast.

To understand the present state of affairs, it is helpful to look back on the cluttered history of Facebook legal Issues.

Controversy from the Start

In 2003 prior to founding Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard student, created Facesmash (a hot or not type site) using images he hacked from the Harvard student database. Within hours more than 450 students had accessed the site and the university demanded the site be taken down.

In 2004 Facebook is launched amid questions about whether the site was really Zuckerberg’s idea. A lawsuit filed by the co-founders of the HarvardConnection (later renamed ConnectU) alleged he stole the idea and some of the code to create Facebook. The lawsuit was settled in 2008 with stock certificates to the plaintiffs.

Cyberstalking, Cyberbullying

Over the last decade, multiple lawsuits on behalf of one individual or a group of individuals have been levied against Facebook as people use and abuse the platform. A January 2010, ABC News story reported teens across the country have committed suicide due, in part, to the bullying that they have experienced via Facebook.

For the most part, the lawsuits have been filed against the individual users as Facebook has hidden behind their terms of service. In the past, this strategy has protected them but I don’t know if it will protect Facebook from future legal issues.


By 2008, lawsuits were being filed against Facebook for violating user privacy. One early lawsuit claimed that they published user activity from third-party applications (like games) in user news feeds. For example, results, scores and other user information was made public to a larger community. As a result of the lawsuit Facebook established a digital trust fund to study online privacy.

While this was a good first step, clearly it wasn’t enough. Almost a decade later the number of lawsuits and investigations continues to grow.

In 2016, the German Federal Cartel Office (the Bundeskartellamt) announced an investigation into the company’s collection and use of user data. The German’s contended that Facebook’s terms and conditions regarding user data are not only difficult to understand but must be agreed upon in order for individuals to log onto and use Facebook. Essentially the Cartel Office believes Facebook is “extorting” information from its users. As of this date, this is still an ongoing investigation.

Profile Information and Advertisers

As an advertiser, I appreciate the ability to target a specific segment of the population. However, a test by ProPublica , an independent online news publication, uncovered serious issues with the targeting tool. ProPublica was able to target campaigns based on anti-Semitic sentiment. In response, Facebook has tightened some of their advertising approval and targeting processes.  

Who Will Set the Rules?

I don’t believe Facebook is prepared to keep up with all the ways people are using and abusing their platform. At every turn, it seems they are one step behind. So if they can’t regulate themselves the question becomes who can? Congress? The FTC?

There is no simple answer, but there will be much discussion in the months to come. If you are using social media to promote your business this is a conversation you need to stay informed about.

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The controversy over privacy and data sharing was the topic of a recent episode of More than a Few Words

Update: in April of 2018 Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress with regard to many of these issues. We’ve written a blog post discussing what we see as the impact of  the Facebook data breach on small business owners.