WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court seems split along ideological lines as it considers whether websites that collect and sell personal data can be sued for posting false information if the errors don’t cause any specific harm.
The justices heard arguments Monday in a case involving Thomas Robins, a Virginia resident who noticed that an online profile about him compiled by Internet search site Spokeo.com was filled with major mistakes.
Robins, who was in his 20s, unemployed and single, found himself described as wealthy, in his 50s, holding a good job, and married with children.
The justices debated whether Robins can sue Spokeo for a technical violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, even though he could not show the mistakes marred his credit, cost him a job, or even a chance at a date.
Liberal justices seemed to side with Robins’ view that being falsely portrayed is enough to show harm. But conservatives insisted the law required Robins to show exactly how he was injured.
The case is being closely watched by Facebook, Twitter and a host of other technology firms concerned about class-action lawsuits that would open them up to billions of dollars of damages for trivial violations of the fair credit law and similar statutes protecting consumer privacy rights. On the other side, consumer protection advocates say such lawsuits are the only way to hold companies accountable for mistakes.
“Seems like a concrete injury to me,” Justice Elena Kagan said of the mistakes. “If somebody did it to me, I’d feel harmed.”
Kagan said that Congress passed the fair credit law in the first place because lawmakers were concerned about people being injured by the dissemination of false information.
“People get these reports and you don’t know what they are doing with these reports,” she said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested the false information could have harmed Robins in unexpected ways.
“I will tell you that I know plenty of single people who look at whether someone who’s proposed to date is married or not,” she said. “So if you’re not married and there’s a report out there saying you are, that’s a potential injury.”
Spokeo lawyer Andrew Pincus argued that Robins’ claims are too speculative and not the kind of “tangible” injury to economic or property rights that Congress intended when it passed the fair credit law.
The law was designed to keep companies from compiling inaccurate information that could jeopardize a person’s ability to get loans or find work. Violators can face damages of $1,000 per violation, but that can climb into the millions in class-action cases.
Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress was not focused on faulty information itself, but on the failure of credit reporting agencies to follow proper procedures in collecting and reporting data.
“In fact, Congress has not identified misinformation as a sueable harm,” Justice Scalia said.
A lower court ruled that Robins could not sue because the errors were harmless. But a federal appeals court overturned that decision, saying it was enough that Spokeo violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Arguing for Robins, attorney William Consovoy said Congress meant to allow lawsuits for people with a “personal stake” in the publication of inaccurate information.
Chief Justice John Roberts wondered what would happen if a person had an unlisted number and a data company published a phone number that happened to be wrong. Is there still an injury?
Consovoy agreed that would be enough.
But Roberts said the court has historically required an “injury in fact” that seems to be lacking in Robins’ case.
Spokeo’s website allows subscribers to look up personal information about almost anyone. It has a searchable database of profiles that includes addresses, phone numbers, marital status, age, employment information, education and economic health. But the information is collected from a variety of public sources and the company warns that it sometimes contains inaccuracies.
A decision is expected by the end of June.