Tagged.com Sued over Email-Harvesting Chain-Letter Scheme

Wendy Davis, Social Network Site Accused of ‘Harvesting’ Email Addresses:

The California case was brought by Miriam Slater of Santa Barbara and Sara Golden of Los Angeles. Slater, an artist, alleges that she received a Tagged email on June 6 that purported to be from an acquaintance who wanted to share photos.

Slater says in the complaint that she visited the site and provided the company with information, but only because she wanted to view the pictures. She alleges that Tagged never disclosed that she was actually registering to join the site or that it would harvest her email addresses and then solicit those contacts.

Golden alleges that she joined Tagged after receiving an invitation that appeared to have been sent by Slater. Slater and Golden are seeking class-action status. They allege that Tagged’s actions violate various laws including the federal Stored Communications Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

I haven’t had the chance to think carefully through the legal merits of the various claims, but Tagged’s behavior is slimy. In my forthcoming article on social network privacy, Saving Facebook, I call this sort of tactic a “chain letter,” because it uses manipulative social appeals to convince people to propagate it to their friends. As I write:

We’ve seen that social network sites spread virally through real social network. Once they have, they themselves provide a fertile environment for memes and add-ons to spread rapidly through the social network of users. There’s an obvious network effect at work; the more users a given site or Application has, the more engaging it is.

There’s also an obvious conflict of interest here; Hubert would like Hermes to join him in using HyperPoke, even if Hermes himself wouldn’t enjoy it. Under most circumstances, the network effect and the conflict of interest are inseparable; they’re both irreducibly social, and the best we can do is leave it up to Hubert and Hermes to negotiate any tension between themselves. Most of the actual operations of viral word-of-mouth marketing are necessarily beyond regulation, and should be.

Matters may be different, however, when Hubert has an interest in Hermes’s participation that goes beyond the pleasure of his company. If Hubert is being paid to convince Hermes to sign up, he has an incentive to treat Hermes as an object, rather than as a friend. HyperPoke is subverting the relationship; that’s bad for Hermes and for their friendship. There’s a particular danger that a social network site feature could be “social” in the same way that a multi-level marketing scheme or a chain letter is: by bribing or threatening current users to use every social trick in their book to bring in new ones. …

This is a useful general principle: It’s presumptively illegitimate to bribe users to take advantage of their social networks. True, there’s a fine line between these “artificial” incentives and the “natural” incentives of inherently social Applications, but Facebook is doing the right thing by banning viral incentives that have no legitimate connection to the Application’s actual functionality. Regulators should watch out for the deliberate exploitation of social dynamics, and where appropriate, prohibit such practices.

I was talking about bribery rather than trickery, but the effect is the same. Raiding my address book without my knowledge and then sending out forged invitations under my name involves the same contagious hijacking of people’s relationships and it’s just as abhorrent.