Facebook is no stranger to complaints about the content of posts. Usually, one user complains to Facebook about what other users’ posts say about him. By making the offending posts available, Facebook is processing the complainant’s personal data, and must do so in compliance with data protection law.
More unusually, a user could also complain about their own Facebook posts. Surely a complainant cannot make data protection criticisms about information they deliberately posted about themselves? After all, Facebook processes those posts with the author’s consent, doesn’t it?
Generally, yes – but that will not necessarily be true in every instance, especially when it comes to Facebook posts by children. This is the nature of the complaint in striking litigation currently afoot before the High Court in Northern Ireland.
The case is HL v Facebook Inc, Facebook Ireland Ltd, the Northern Health & Social Care Trust and DCMS  NIQB 61. It is currently only in its preliminary stages, but it raises very interesting and important issues about Facebook’s procedures for preventing underage users from utilising the social network. Those issues are illuminated in the recent judgment of Stephen J, who is no stranger to claims against Facebook – he heard the recent case of CG v Facebook  NIQB 11, concerning posts about a convicted paedophile.
From the age of 11 onwards, HL maintained a Facebook page on which she made posts of an inappropriate sexual nature. She was exposed to responses from sexual predators. She says that Facebook is liable for its failure to prevent her from making these posts. She alleges that Facebook (i) unlawfully processed her sensitive personal data, (ii) facilitated her harassment by others, and (iii) was negligent in failing to have proper systems in place to minimise the risks of children setting up Facebook accounts by lying about their age.
The data protection claim raises a number of issues of great importance to the business of Facebook and others with comparable business models. One is the extent to which a child can validly consent to the processing of their personal data – especially sensitive personal data. Minors are (legitimately or not) increasingly active online, and consent is a cornerstone of online business. The consent issue is of one of wide application beyond the HL litigation.
A second issue is whether, in its processing of personal data, Facebook does enough to stop minors using their own personal data in ways which could harm them. In her claim, for example, HL refers to evidence given to a committee of the Australian Parliament – apparently by a senior privacy advisor to Facebook (though Facebook was unable to tell Stephens J who he was). That evidence apparently said that Facebook removes 20,000 under-age user profiles a day.
Stephens J was also referred to comments apparently made by a US Senator to Mark Zuckerberg about the vulnerability of underage Facebook users.
Another element of HL’s case concerns Facebook’s use of an outsourcing company called oDesk, operating for example from Morocco, to moderate complaints about Facebook posts. She calls into question the adequacy of these oversight measures: ‘where then is the oversight body for these underpaid global police?’ (to quote from a Telegraph article referred to in the recent HL judgment). Facebook says that – given its number of users in multiple languages across the globe – effective policing is a tall order (an argument J summed up at paragraph 22 as ‘the needle in a haystack argument, there is just too much to monitor, the task of dealing with underage users is impossible’).
In short, HL says that Facebook seems to be aware of the scale and seriousness of the problem of underage use of its network and has not done enough to tackle that problem.
Again, the issue is one of wider import for online multinationals for whom personal data is stock-in-trade.
The same goes for the third important data protection issue surfacing in the HL litigation. This concerns jurisdiction, cross-border data controllers and section 5 of the Data Protection Act 1998. For example, is Facebook Ireland established in the UK by having an office, branch or agency, and does it process the personal data in Facebook posts in the context of that establishment?
These issues are all still to be decided. Stephens J’s recent judgment in HL was not about the substantive issues, but about HL’s applications for specific discovery and interrogatories. He granted those applications. In addition to details of HL’s Facebook account usage, he ordered the Facebook defendants to disclose agreements between them and Facebook (UK) Ltd and between them and o-Desk (to whom some moderating processes were outsourced). He has also ordered the Facebook defendants to answer interrogatory questions about their procedures for preventing underage Facebook use.
In short, the HL litigation has – thus far – raised difficult data protection and privacy issues which are fundamental to Facebook’s business, and it has required Facebook to lay bare internal details of its safeguarding practices. The case is only just beginning. The substantive hearing, which is listed for next term, could groundbreaking.
Robin Hopkins @hopkinsrobin