SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Twitter “surreptitiously eavesdrops” on its users by intercepting, reading and altering their private messages without their knowledge, according to a federal class action seeking potentially massive damages against the popular social network.
Twitter is best known for its short, public, 140-character messages called “tweets,” but the company also operates a private “Direct Messages” service in which users can talk privately.
The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Federal Court by Texas resident Wilford Raney, focuses on such direct messages that contain links to outside articles.
Although the direct messages are supposed to be private, as soon as a user sends a direct message Twitter “intercepts, reads, and, at times, even alters the message,” the suit says.
If a user writes a direct message that includes a hyperlink, Twitter will “identify the hyperlink and replace it with its own custom link” in order to show that it is the source of the traffic and to generate better advertising rates, Raney says.
For example, if a user were to link to a website such as www.nytimes.com, Twitter’s algorithms would replace the link with its own link. This would increase “its perceived value to third-party websites and would-be advertisers,” Raney says.
“That is, in the example given, The New York Times would identify Twitter as the source of Internet traffic, whereas without replacing the link the source would be anonymous. The end result is that Twitter can negotiate better advertising rates,” according to the complaint.
Twitter has publicized that it replaces hyperlinks found in tweets but does not disclose that it looks for and replaces hyperlinks contained in private direct messages, Raney says.
“Twitter users reasonably expect that their direct messages will be kept private during transmission. Nonetheless, unbeknownst to them, Twitter intercepts and reads the contents of every direct message,” Raney says.
The company never obtains or even seeks its users’ consent to do so, which violates their privacy under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the California Invasion of Privacy Act, the lawsuit says.
Raney’s lawsuit aims to represent two classes: every American on Twitter who has ever received a direct message, and every American on Twitter who has ever sent a direct message.
Raney, represented by Samuel Lasser with Edelson PC, seeks damages as high as $100 per day for each Twitter user whose privacy was violated under the federal law and $5,000 per class member under the state law.
Started in 2006, Twitter has more than one billion registered users and 316 million active users who collectively transmit more than a half-billion tweets per day.
The company’s terms of service notes that Twitter “may modify or adapt your content in order to transmit, display or distribute it over computer networks and in various media and/or make changes to your content as are necessary to conform and adapt that content to any requirements or limitations of any networks, devices, services or media.”
The word “content” is defined as “any information, text, graphics, photos or other materials uploaded, downloaded or appearing on the services.” Twitter does not specifically distinguish between public or private messaging when it comes to altering.
A Twitter spokesperson said the claims “are meritless and we intend to fight them.”
Twitter is not the only company to face litigation for allegedly violating its users’ privacy.
A lawsuit filed in San Jose federal court claimed that Google’s Gmail service improperly scanned emails to serve advertisements to its users. That case was settled last year.
Facebook is currently facing federal litigation in California for allegedly scanning the private messages that users send to each other. The suit claims that Facebook interprets links within users’ messages to each other as “likes,” and then includes them in the total number of “likes’ that appear on the publisher’s pages via social plug-ins.
Facebook says it stopped the practice on October 2012.
Last year, Snapchat settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that the company inaccurately claimed data sent through its service would disappear after it was viewed.
The case led to Snapchat altering the language of its terms of service to no longer misrepresent how it maintains the privacy and confidentiality of its user information.
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