British Facebook Users Must Sue Tech Giant in UK, US Judge Rules

(AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — United Kingdom citizens cannot sue Facebook in U.S. court for leaking user data to Cambridge Analytica and other data privacy scandals, despite claims the social network retroactively changed legal forum rules for U.K. users while their lawsuit was pending.

During a virtual hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said he does not believe Facebook foisted new terms on U.K. users to undermine the pending lawsuit. He rejected the notion that five Facebook users from the United Kingdom could be added as named plaintiffs to an amended class action complaint in U.S. federal court.

“Under those circumstances and given the language in the forum selection clause, it seems to me that it does apply to the new named U.K. plaintiffs, and the result of that is I need to grant the motion to dismiss as to the U.K. plaintiffs,” Chhabria said.

In May 2018, Facebook introduced new terms of service for U.K. users requiring them to file all legal claims against the social network in their home countries or Ireland. The new forum selection clause was not intended to undermine a pending lawsuit, Facebook says, but rather to comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took effect in May 2018.

After the new terms were rolled out, one British plaintiff was removed from the U.S. class action and replaced with five new U.K. citizens in a second amended complaint. But Facebook says because those U.K. users agreed to a new forum selection clause in 2018, they can no longer sue the social network in U.S. court.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers counter that the new forum selection clause does not apply to already filed and pending claims in the U.S.

“What we don’t want to allow is for defendants in a class action case to change the operative agreement as to all putative class members and prevent them from having a lawsuit that’s already on file,” plaintiffs’ attorney Adele Daniel of the firm Keller Rohrback argued in court.

Daniel cited court rulings holding that new named plaintiffs can “step into the shoes” of previous named plaintiffs for all purposes.

“It’s a simple substitution,” she argued.

But Chhabria disagreed, noting that those cases were about the statute of limitations expiring, not forum selection.

“When you’re talking about somebody who is actually bringing a lawsuit for the first time, it seems like pure fiction to say they brought the lawsuit when the prior named plaintiff brought the lawsuit,” the judge said.

Unlike an expiring statute of limitations, U.K. plaintiffs can still sue Facebook in their home countries, Chhabria added.

“It’s not extinguishing the lawsuit on behalf of U.K. plaintiffs,” Chhabria said. “It’s dismissing this particular lawsuit by these particular U.K. plaintiffs without interfering with their ability to pursue their lawsuit in the U.K. against Facebook.”

Daniel insisted that U.S. federal court in Northern California is the preferred forum for U.K. plaintiffs because “Facebook is here. Evidence is here. Witnesses are here.”

She also argued that the 2018 forum selection and choice-of-law clause for U.K. users did not apply to lawsuits that predated the agreement, an argument Chhabria rejected.

“I don’t see how you can say that the language does not apply to disputes that arose prior to the adoption of this agreement on May 15, [2018],” the judge said.

Last month, a group called Facebook You Owe Us announced it had filed a lawsuit in the United Kingdom on behalf of 1 million Facebook users in England and Wales over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

Facebook has not yet been served with that lawsuit, according to the social network’s attorney.

The purported filing of that suit is “another factor that supports dismissal,” Facebook lawyer Russell Falconer of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher argued Monday.

After about 45 minutes of debate, Chhabria signaled he would grant Facebook’s motion to dismiss. He issued a two-page order dismissing U.K. plaintiffs from the lawsuit on Tuesday morning.

The claims against Facebook stem from a series of data privacy scandals that have rocked the social media giant in recent years. Those scandals include revelations that Cambridge Analytica obtained 87 million users’ private data through a quiz app, that Facebook-associated apps can obtain the personal data of a user’s friends without their express permission and that Facebook shared user data with device makers and business partners without making the arrangement obvious to users.

Last year, Chhabria denied Facebook’s motion to dismiss the class action, rejecting the company’s argument that users suffered no real-world harm by having their private data exposed and shared with third parties.

“When you share sensitive information with a limited audience (especially when you’ve made clear that you intend your audience to be limited), you retain privacy rights and can sue someone for violating them,” Chhabria wrote in that ruling.

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