LinkedIn has largely escaped the privacy drama that has plagued Facebook and Google over the years. But the business social networking site may have stepped into some trouble with its alleged e-mail harvesting practices.
Four people filed a lawsuit accusing LinkedIn of tapping their e-mail accounts without permission, harvesting e-mail addresses, and sending out essentially spammy e-mails inviting their contacts to join the social network.
The lawsuit, which was filed in San Jose federal court by Russ August & Kabat, a Los Angeles-based law firm, is seeking damages on behalf of all LinkedIn members for "breaking into" personal e-mail accounts disguised as the owner.
LinkedIn's Alleged Violations
"As a part of its effort to acquire new users, Linkedln sends multiple e-mails endorsing its products, services and brand to potential new users," the nationwide class action lawsuit reads.
"In an effort to optimize the efficiency of this strategy, Linkedln sends these 'endorsement e-mails' to the list of e-mail addresses obtained without its existing users' express consent and, to further enhance the effectiveness of this particular marketing campaign, these endorsement e-mails contain the name and likeness of those existing users from whom Linkedln surreptitiously obtained the list of e-mail addresses."
Blake Lawit, senior director of Litigation at LinkedIn, responded in a blog post on Saturday night. He denied that the platform breaks into the e-mail accounts of its members who choose to upload their e-mail address books to LinkedIn.
"Quite simply, this is not true, and with so much misinformation out there, we wanted to clear up a few things for our members," he wrote. He went on to say that LinkedIn does not access members' e-mail accounts without their permission and argued claims that the site hacks or breaks into members' accounts are false.
"We never deceive you by "pretending to be you" in order to access your e-mail account. We never send messages or invitations to join LinkedIn on your behalf to anyone unless you have given us permission to do so," he continued. "We do give you the choice to share your e-mail contacts, so you can connect on LinkedIn with other professionals that you know and trust. We will continue to do everything we can to make our communications about how to do this as clear as possible."
Lawit then reiterated a LinkedIn core value: members first. He said this value guides all the decisions the company makes when it comes to its members, including how it communicates with them and how it uses their data.
Privacy Gray Zones
We asked Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, for his reaction to the LinkedIn scandal. Could this start a firestorm in the social media realm? How common is the practice of e-mail harvesting?
"Some social media sites have operated in gray zones of privacy in the past, asking users to opt-out of marketing efforts in fine print. However LinkedIn has flatly denied the allegations in the lawsuit. They remain to be proven," Sterling told us.
"There does appear to be anecdotal evidence of the claims, however. I suspect we'll see the FTC become involved sooner rather than later, which would be bad for LinkedIn's reputation and its stock value," he said.