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Don’t Blame Us for Your Spam Tactics, Users Tell LinkedIn

(CN) - Disgruntled LinkedIn users fired back at the company, saying the business-networking site "blames its users" for harvesting their email contacts without permission.

LinkedIn faces a federal class action in San Francisco claiming it siphons email contacts from users' external email accounts and then spams them with "endorsement emails." Users want LinkedIn to pay them for using their identities to sell premium memberships, grow its member base and save money on acquiring new members.

LinkedIn urged U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose to dismiss the complaint in December, saying users consented to the challenged actions by clicking through a series of "permission screens" when they first joined. The company suggested users merely "misunderstood" these screens or "were embarrassed by a connection invitation."

The plaintiffs - including several well-educated professionals - say this was not the case.

In their brief opposing LinkedIn's motion to dismiss, they say "a few cryptic disclosures on a website" do not give LinkedIn the right "to harvest users' email addresses and broadcast users' persona to hundreds of people."

"Without consent or notice, LinkedIn checks to see if the user has an open email account on his or her computer," the brief states. "For example, LinkedIn attempts to access a user's Gmail account if the user has Gmail open in another browser window or has not logged out of Gmail. If an email account is open, LinkedIn accesses the account by using the open email session. LinkedIn does not prompt members for a password. Instead, LinkedIn sweeps the external email account for every email address a user has been emailed by, CCed, or emailed. For many users this is thousands of addresses."

The plaintiffs say the site's own co-founder, Reid Hoffman, has described this tactic as the single most important decision the site ever made.

"[W]hen we launched, we had hoped ... that the growth would pick up by itself," Hoffman said, according to the plaintiffs' brief. "I sat down with the team. And I said, look if we don't solve this we're dead ... I have one good idea ... we'll allow people to essentially upload their address books." (Ellipses in original.)

Users say LinkedIn is trying to blame them for clicking on deceptive sign-up screens - "rebranded in LinkedIn's motion as 'permission screens'" - that contain no disclosures of LinkedIn's email harvesting methods.

"The cryptic phrases on LinkedIn's site fall far short of establishing actual or implied consent," users say.

And in rebuttal to LinkedIn's claim that they lack standing because its endorsement emails do not injure or enrich anyone, users say the company charges members $10 to email another member they're not directly linked to. In other words, LinkedIn places a $10 value on each of those endorsement emails, the brief states.

The plaintiffs asked Judge Koh to deny LinkedIn's motions to dismiss and to strike class allegations.

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