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Today’s pro-Facebook court ruling is a massive blow for online privacy

Facebook lawsuit analysis

It used to be that only death and taxes were certain. But thanks to a new court ruling, you can add Facebook invading your privacy to the list.

A US district judge in San Jose, California, has thrown out a lawsuit that sought to hold Facebook accountable for tracking users after they’d logged out of Facebook. In his ruling, Judge Edward Davila said that the individuals suing Facebook had failed to show a reasonable expectation of privacy and any meaningful economic damage from Facebook’s actions, tacitly rubber-stamping Facebook’s tracking of its users, no matter what they’re doing on the internet.

As Reuters reports, the lawsuit claimed that Facebook violated federal and California law by tracking users outside of the website. The core issue is that Facebook routinely installs cookies on users’ browsers, which track data whenever the user is on an external website that has Facebook’s “Like” button embedded.

Seeing as most every website is bound by indentured servitude to the massive traffic-driver that is Facebook, the technique amounts to an effective tracking of users’ entire web activity outside of Facebook.

Normally, that’s a privilege reserved for the NSA, hence the lawsuit. But the judge found that since there are technical ways to prevent Facebook from tracking your data, such as manually deleting cookies or using Google Chrome plugins, the plaintiffs’ case had no merit.

The scary thing about this case isn’t just the immediate effect — Facebook having permission to keep a worldwide record of everyone’s likes and habits — but the standard it sets for internet privacy. In effect, it makes privacy an opt-in feature, not opt-out.

Sure, there are technical ways to get around pervasive tracking, but they take time, effort, and expertise to set up. We all know that without making privacy a default, the vast majority of internet users aren’t going to bother.

You might think that that’s just what happens when people can’t be bothered to look after their own data, and to an extent, you’d be right. But it’s also chilling that such a large decision — effectively giving away the privacy of millions of users who won’t know better — can come in the form of one tiny lawsuit in a courtroom in California.