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Recent Alum Takes on Facebook in Class Action

January 24, 2013

Less than two years out of the USF School of Law, Jonathan Jaffe ’09 made a name for himself by filing a case against social media giant Facebook over the company’s “Sponsored Stories” ad program, which publicizes users’ “likes” without their consent.

He’s now on the eve of settling the class action, Fraley v. Facebook, with a federal judge giving preliminary approval in December of a $20 million negotiated settlement.

“The gut-level injustice of it drew me to the case,” said Jaffe, who has his own practice in Berkeley. “Facebook’s hubris kept me going. Facebook’s exploitation of the trust between friends for its financial gain is wrong. It’s doubly wrong to put someone in an advertisement without even attempting to seek permission, to not permit the user to get out of those ads and to refuse to remunerate him or her as a model, particularly when it’s that person’s appearance that is doubling the value of the ad. It seemed that Facebook had decided it would make money any way it wanted to, its users’ interests be damned. It made me angry.”

Under the settlement, users can claim a $10 payment for having appeared in ads and any funds left over will go to advocacy groups. For Jaffe, the settlement is about more than money – most importantly, he said, Facebook will give users meaningful control over whether and in what advertisements they appear. Currently, users have no control. For minors, both they and their parents will get control over whether minors appear in ads at all.

Jaffe first learned about “Sponsored Stories” from a friend immediately after their debut in early 2011. He promptly researched the law, drafted a complaint and successfully pitched the case to mentor and School of Law adjunct professor Bob Arns ‘75 of Arns Law Firm in San Francisco.

Jaffe, who took Arns’ trial practice course, said he would not have had the gumption to pursue such a case so soon after law school without his mentorship. And while the prospect of taking on Facebook was intimidating, Jaffe was drawn to the David vs. Goliath fight and to the chance to help protect privacy rights.

“Privacy is necessary for individuals and society to flourish,” Jaffe said. “As people lose the ability to control what is known about them, they begin to self-police their thoughts and actions. They begin to conform to convention. Convention is safe, but it’s not very interesting. Without privacy, a society becomes mired down in its own fear of stepping outside the norm. That is just not a place in which I want my children to grow up.”