Data protection has developed a curious habit of churning up heroic (or anti-heroic, depending on how you view it) figures who take on global behemoths to surprising effect. Maybe I am being too dramatic, but think of Mario Costeja González, the complainant at the heart of the Google Spain ‘right to be forgotten’ case, and Max Schrems, whose litigation has thrown Safe Harbor and transatlantic data transfers into turmoil.
If we maintain a transatlantic gaze, another such figure comes into view. On Monday of this week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard argument in the case of Spokeo Inc v Thomas Robins. Mr Robins – the potential David in this important new David v Goliath episode – is at the forefront of litigation against the ‘people search engine’ Spokeo (see Anya’s earlier post here).
The profile Spokeo compiled about him said he was a graduate, a professional in his 50s and a married man with children. Hardly defamatory stuff, except that none of it was correct. He did not establish that these errors caused him any financial loss, but he seeks damages for the publication of factually incorrect information about his life.
So what, you say? Well, consider the Amicus Briefs put before SCOTUS by Ebay, Facebook, Google and Yahoo. They all say that this is a very big deal. They point out that, as major global tech innovators, they are exposed to numerous federal and state laws which contain statutory damages provisions for private causes of actions. If standing is granted for “no injury” lawsuits “plaintiffs may pursue suits against amici even where they are not actually harmed by an alleged statutory violation, and in certain circumstances, seek class action damages that could run into the billions of dollars”.
The issues in Robins (should you be compensated for mere breaches or for ‘digital injuries’?) resonate with live issues before the courts in the UK: can you be compensated under the Data Protection Act 1998 for mere distress (see Vidal-Hall v Google, en route to the Supreme Court)? How should one compensate for privacy violations (see Gulati, on which the Court of Appeal’s judgment is awaited)?
Regardless of whether Mr Robins emerges as a Goliath-slayer, his case adds to the law’s increasingly intense scrutiny of global tech companies whose stock in trade is personal data.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin