August 28, 2009
Community, Network, Class Action
The most recent BNA Class Action Reporter describes a privacy lawsuit filed by Facebook users alleging that Facebook "a data mining company disguised as a social network, and has repeatedly violated users' privacy, engaged in illegal advertising, and misappropriated users' names and likenesses as a routine part of its business." The suit, Melkonian v. Facebook Inc., was filed in California on August 17 (see Cal. Super. Ct., No. 30-2009 00293755, 8/17/09).
This reminds me of the work of two of my fellow bloggers. Byron Stier has written about mass tort litigation as network (see his paper on SSRN) and Elizabeth Burch has written on the concept of "community" in aggregate litigation (see her paper on SSRN as well). I think Burch's work in particular speaks to a larger desire to create community in an increasingly atomized world and is in the same vein as the "third place" literature in sociology -- that is, the idea that people need a place beyond work and home to connect with one another: the bowling alley, the soccer field, the Starbucks. We Americans are torn between a strong tradition of individualism and a desire to find our place in a community and we see the same themes and tensions repeated in the context of litigation. Yes, there is the tradition of the day in court ideal. But at the same time we have a very robust class action regime - probably the most robust in the world - and increasingly the use of aggregate litigation serves the same function in areas where the possibility of class treatment has been cut off. What do we make of this desire?
It seems to me that litigation is more about speech than connection, and that is what makes these latest class actions that are directly about speech, publicity and privacy (such as this Facebook suit or the Google settlement) so interesting. The power of creating a collective lawsuit is really the power of voice, but its an anemic type of participation in the deep sense of the term. That's why non-utilitarians have such a hard time with it. (This struggle is set forth in a very good article by Lawrence Solum, Procedural Justice, available on SSRN). That is also what bothers ethicists about settlements like that in the Vioxx litigation, for similar reasons. That is, the value of the individual in his own right rather than looking only to the collective good. A closer look at our history demonstrates that participation has always been a bit more ideal than real. For a discussion of this history in the academic literature see Robert Bone, Rethinking the Day in Court Ideal and Non Party Preclusion, 67 New York University Law Review 193 (1992) (unfortunately not available on SSRN) and Issacharoff & Witt, The Inevitability of Aggregate Settlement (available on SSRN).
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