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Meta Faces Class Action Lawsuits Over Pixel Tool Data Controversy

Ray Mestad, MJLST Staffer

With a market capitalization of $341 billion, Meta Platforms is one of the most valuable companies in the world.[1] Information is a prized asset for Meta, but how that information is acquired continues to be a source of conflict. Their Meta “Pixel” tool is a piece of code that allows websites to track visitor activity.[2] However, what Meta does with the data after it is acquired may be in violation of a variety of privacy laws. Because of that, Meta is now facing almost fifty class action lawsuits due to Pixel’s use of data from video players and healthcare patient portals.[3]

What is Pixel?

Pixel is an analytical tool that tracks visitor actions on a website.[4] In theory, the actions that are tracked include purchases, registrations, cart additions, searches and more. This information can then be used by the website owners to better understand user behavior. Website owners can more efficiently use ad spend by tailoring ads to relevant users and finding more receptive users based on Pixel’s analysis.[5]

In the world of search engine optimization and web analysis tools like Pixel are common, and there are other sites, like Google Analytics, that provide similar functions. However, there are two key differences between these other tools and Pixel. First, Pixel has in some cases accidentally scraped private, identifiable information from websites. Second, Pixel can connect that information to the social profiles on their flagship website, Facebook. Whether intentionally or accidentally, Pixel has been found to have grabbed personal information beyond the simple user web actions it was supposed to be limited to and connected them to Facebook profiles.[6]

Pixel and Patient Healthcare Information

It’s estimated that, until recently, one third of the top 100 hospitals in the country used Pixel on their websites.[7] However, that number may decrease after Meta’s recent data privacy issues. Meta faced both criticism and legal action in the summer of 2022 for its treatment of user data on healthcare websites. Pixel incorrectly retrieved private patient information, including names, conditions, email addresses and more. Meta then targeted hospital website users with ads on Facebook, using the information Pixel collected from hospital websites and patient portals by matching user information with their Facebook accounts.[8] Novant Health, a healthcare provider, ran advertisements promoting vaccinations in 2020. They then added Pixel code to their website to evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign. Pixel proceeded to send private and identifiable user information to Meta.[9] Another hospital (and Meta’s co-defendant in the lawsuit), the University of California San Francisco and Dignity Health (“UCSF”), was accused of illegally gathering patient information via Pixel code on their patient portal. Private medical information was then distributed to Meta. At some point, it is claimed that pharmaceutical companies then gained access to this medical information and sent out targeted ads based thereon.[10] That is just one example – all in all, more than 1 million patients have been affected by this Pixel breach.[11] 

Pixel and Video Tracking

The problems did not stop there. Following its patient portal controversy, Meta again faced criticism for obtaining protected user data with Pixel, this time in the context of video consumption. There are currently 47 proposed class actions against Meta for violations of the Video Privacy Protection Act (the “VPPA”). The VPPA was created in the 1980’s to cover videotape and audio-visual materials. No longer confined to the rental store, the VPPA has now taken on a much broader meaning after the growth of the internet. 

These class actions accuse Meta of using the Pixel tool to take video user data from a variety of company websites, including the NFL, NPR, the Boston Globe, Bloomberg Law and many more. The classes allege that by collecting video viewing activity in a personally identifiable manner without consent (matching Facebook user IDs to the activity rather than anonymously), so Pixel users could target their ads at the viewers, Pixel violated the VPPA. Under the VPPA Meta is not the defendant in these lawsuits, but rather the companies that shared user information with Meta.[12]

Causes of Action

The relatively new area of data privacy is scarcely litigated by the federal government due to the lack of statutes protecting consumer privacy on the federal level. Because of that, the number of data protection civil litigants can be expected to continue to grow. [13] HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, an act created in 1996 to protect patient information from disclosure without patient consent. In the patient portal cases, HIPAA actions would have to be initiated by the US government. Claimants are therefore suing Meta under consumer protection and other privacy laws like the California Confidentiality of Medical Information Act, the Federal Wiretap Act, and the Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act instead.[14] These state Acts allow individuals to sue, when under Federal Acts like HIPPA, the Government may move slowly, or not at all. And in the cases of video tracking, the litigants may only sue the video provider, not Meta itself.[15] Despite that wrinkle of benefit to Meta, their involvement in more privacy disputes is not ideal for the tech giant as it may hurt the trustworthiness of Meta Platforms in the eyes of the public.

Possible Outcomes

If found liable, the VPPA violations could result in damages of $2,500 per class member.[16] Punitive damages for the healthcare data breaches could run in the millions as well and would vary state to state due to the variety of acts the claims are brought in violation of.[17] Specifically, in the UCSF data case class members are seeking punitive damages of $5 million.[18] One possible hang-up that may become an issue for claimants are arbitration agreements. If the terms and conditions of either hospital patient portals or video provider websites contain arbitration clauses, litigants may have difficulty overcoming them. On the one hand, these terms and conditions may be binding and force the parties to attend mandatory arbitration meetings. On the other hand, consumer rights attorneys may argue that consent needs to come from forms separate from online user agreements.[19] If more lawsuits emerge due to the actions of Pixel, it is quite possible that companies will move away from the web analytics tools to avoid potential liability. It remains to be seen whether the convenience and utility of Meta Pixel stops being worth the risk the web analytics tools present to websites.

Notes

[1] Meta Nasdaq, https://www.google.com/finance/quote/META:NASDAQ (last visited Oct. 21, 2022).

[2] Meta Pixel, Meta for Developers, https://developers.facebook.com/docs/meta-pixel/.

[3] Sky Witley, Meta Pixel’s Video Tracking Spurs Wave of Data Privacy Suits, (Oct. 13, 2022, 3:55 AM), Bloomberg Law, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/privacy-and-data-security/meta-pixels-video-tracking-spurs-wave-of-consumer-privacy-suits.

[4] Meta Pixel, https://adwisely.com/glossary/meta-pixel/ (last visited Oct. 21, 2022).

[5] Ted Vrountas, What Is the Meta Pixel & What Does It Do?, https://instapage.com/blog/meta-pixel.

[6] Steve Adler, Meta Facing Further Class Action Lawsuit Over Use of Meta Pixel Code on Hospital Websites, HIPPA Journal (Aug. 1, 2022), https://www.hipaajournal.com/meta-facing-further-class-action-lawsuit-over-use-of-meta-pixel-code-on-hospital-websites/.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Bill Toulas, Misconfigured Meta Pixel exposed healthcare data of 1.3M patients, Bleeping Computer (Aug. 22, 2022, 2:16 PM), https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/misconfigured-meta-pixel-exposed-healthcare-data-of-13m-patients/.

[10] Adler, supra note 6.

[11] Toulas, supra note 9.

[12] Witley, supra note 3. 

[13] Id.

[14] Adler, supra note 6.

[15] Witley, supra note 3.

[16] Id

[17] Dave Muoio, Northwestern Memorial the latest hit with a class action over Meta’s alleged patient data mining, Fierce Healthcare (Aug. 12, 2022 10:30AM), https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/health-tech/report-third-top-hospitals-websites-collecting-patient-data-facebook.

[18] Id.

[19] Witley, supra note 3.




Freedom to Moderate? Circuits Split over First Amendment Interpretation

Annelise Couderc, MJLST Staffer

Recently, the Florida and Texas Legislatures passed substantively similar laws which restrict social media platforms’ ability to moderate posts expressing “viewpoints,” and require platforms to provide explanations for why they chose to censor certain content. These laws seemingly stem from the perception of conservative leaning users that their views are disproportionately censored, despite evidence showing otherwise. The laws are in direct conflict with the current prevalent understanding of social media’s access to First Amendment protections, which include the right to moderate content, an expression of free speech.

While the 11th Circuit declared the Florida law unconstitutional for violating social media platforms’ First Amendment rights in May, only four months later the 5th Circuit reinstated the similar Texas law without explanation, overturning the previous injunction made by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. On September 16, 2022, the 5th Circuit released its full decision explaining its reinstatement of the censorship statute, immediately raising constitutional alarm bells in the news. Following this circuit split, social media platforms must navigate a complicated legal minefield. The issue is likely to be resolved by the Supreme Court in response to Florida’s petition of the 11th Circuit’s May decision.

Social Media Platforms Are Generally Free to Moderate Content

The major social media platforms all have policies which ban certain content, or at least require a sensitivity warning to be posted before viewing certain content. Twitter restricts hate speech and imagery, gratuitous violence, sexual violence, and requires sensitive content warnings on adult content. Facebook sets Community Standards and YouTube (a Google subsidiary) sets Community Guidelines that restrict similar content.[1] Social media corporations’ access to free speech protections were well understood under settled Supreme Court precedent, and were further confirmed in the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United establishing the rights of corporations to make political donations as a demonstration of free speech. In sum, Courts have generally allowed social media platforms to moderate and censor sensitive content as they see fit, and platforms have embraced this through their establishment and enforcement of internal guidelines. 

Circuits Split Over First Amendment Concerns

Courts have generally rejected arguments challenging social media platforms’ ability to set and uphold their own content guidelines, upholding social media platforms’ free speech protections under the First Amendment. The 5th Circuit’s rejection of this widely accepted standard has created a circuit split which will lead to further litigation and leave social media platforms uncertain about the validity of their policies and the extent of their constitutional rights.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion in May of this year was consistent with the general understanding of social media’s place as private businesses which hold First Amendment rights. It rejected Florida’s argument that social media platforms are common carriers and stated that editorial discretion by the platforms is a protected First Amendment right.[2] The Court recognized the platforms’ freedom to abide by their own community guidelines and choose which content to prioritize as expressions of editorial judgment protected by the First Amendment.[3] This opinion was attacked directly by the 5th Circuit’s later decision, challenging the 11th Circuit’s adherence to existing First Amendment jurisprudence. 

In its September 16th opinion, the 5th Circuit refused to recognize censorship as speech, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that content moderation was a form of editorial discretion (a recognized form of protected speech for newspapers).[4] The court also invoked common carrier doctrine—which empowers states to enforce nondiscriminatory practices for services that the public uses en masse (a classification that the 11th Circuit explicitly rejected)—, embracing it in the context of social media platforms.[5] Therefore, the court held with “no doubts” that section 7 of the Texas law—which prevents platforms from censoring “viewpoints” (with exceptions for blatantly illegal speech provoking violence, etc.) of users—was constitutional.[6] Section 2 of the contested statute, requiring social media platforms to  justify and announce their moderation choices, was similarly upheld as being a sufficiently important interest of the government, and not unduly burdensome to the businesses.[7] The law allows individuals to sue for enforcement. 

The Supreme Court’s Role and Further Implications

Florida, on September 21st, 2022, petitioned for a writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to review the May 2022 decision. The petition included reference to the 5th Circuit opinion, calling for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Circuit split. Considering recent Supreme Court decisions cutting down Fourth and Fifth amendment rights, it is anticipated that First Amendment rights of online platforms may be next.

Although the Florida and Texas laws involved in these Circuit Court decisions were Republican proposed bills, a Supreme Court decision would impact blue states as well. California, for example, has proposed a bill requiring social media platforms to make public their policies on hate speech and disinformation. A decision in either direction would impact both Republican and Democratic legislatures’ ability to regulate social media platforms in any way.

Notes

[1] Studies have found that platforms like YouTube may actually push hateful content through their algorithms despite what their official policies may state.

[2] NetChoice, LLC v. AG, Fla., 34 F.4th 1196, 1222 (11th Cir. 2022).

[3] Id. at 1204.

[4] Netchoice, L.L.C. v. Paxton, No. 21-51178, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 26062, at *28 (5th Cir. Sep. 16, 2022).

[5] Id. at 59.

[6] Id. at 52.

[7]  Id. at 102.