Facebook Sued For Having Privacy Controls In Place. Yes, Seriously.

Last week Facebook was hit with yet another patent lawsuit, this time by Walker Digital, an “invention company” founded by Jay S. Walker, co-inventor of Priceline.com.

And boy does this one come straight out of left field.

Bloomberg Businessweek first reported the news last Wednesday, but for whatever reason got the number of the patent-in-suit wrong (should be 5,884,272 and not 5,884,271), causing a great deal of confusion in subsequent reports.

I got hold of the complaint this morning (see below), and it actually makes for a great read.

Let’s start by looking at the patent-in-suit, entitled “Method and system for establishing and maintaining user-controlled anonymous communications”. It is described thusly:

A system for establishing anonymous communications includes a plurality of party terminals, a plurality of requester terminals, and a central controller. The system receives and stores party data about respective parties.

Upon receiving criteria for parties of interest from a requestor terminal and authorization from respective parties, the central controller releases to the requester party associated with the parties. The system also establishes communications channels between parties and the requester, while maintaining their anonymity.

Basically, the patent describes how users can manage and control the release of information about themselves or their identities. Additionally, it shows how such personal information can be disclosed, at once or incrementally, through the use of an authorization request, such as for example, enabling strangers to become friends.

Pretty broad for a patent, but okay, that happens (a lot). The funny part of the lawsuit is in the way Walker Digital claims Facebook infringes its (decade-old) patent.

According to the complaint, Facebook is a social utility that permits users to interact with friends and communities of other individuals, but, the plaintiffs say, “the sharing of user information is nonetheless controlled through user-selectable privacy settings.”

It goes on:

“The ‘social utility’, like the patent, is about sharing. Facebook’s privacy controls give you the power to decide what and how much you share.

And, like the patent, once you locate the person you know and then click on the ‘Add as Friend’ button, a friend request will be sent to that person.”

In short, because Facebook enables people to have some control over their privacy on the popular social networking sites by effectively letting users decide which information you share with whom, Walker Digital believes the company infringes one of its “inventions”.

Provided I’ve understood the complaint correctly and the whole thing isn’t an early April Fools joke, this whole suit is just plain laughable.

In a reaction to the Bloomberg piece, a Facebook spokesperson said they would fight the suit vigorously, calling it “completely frivolous”. This time, I can’t help but agree with them.