A 12 June decision in California regarding LinkedIn illustrates an increasingly nuanced understanding of reputation in the context of online interactions.
When a user is setting up a LinkedIn account, they are led through a variety of screens that solicit personal information. Although most of the information is not mandatory, LinkedIn’s use of a “meter” to indicate the “completeness” of a profile actively encourages the sharing of information. Among other things, these steps enable LinkedIn to gain access to the address book contact information of the new user, and prompt that user to provide permission to use that contact information to invite those contacts to establish a relationship on LinkedIn.
The lawsuit alleges that LinkedIn is inappropriately collecting and using this contact information. LinkedIn, pointing to the consent for this use provided by customers, had sought to have the case dismissed. Judge Koh looked at the whole process and found that while consent was given for the initial email to contacts, LinkedIn also sent two follow up emails to those contacts who did not respond to the original – and that there was no user consent provided for these follow-ups.
What is interesting about the decision to allow this part of the claim to go forward is Koh’s analysis of harm. That analysis doesn’t stop with whether LinkedIn has consent for the follow-up emails, rather she examines what the effect of this practice might be and concludes that it "could injure users' reputations by allowing contacts to think that the users are the types of people who spam their contacts or are unable to take the hint that their contacts do not want to join their LinkedIn network." Given this, she suggests that users could pursue claims that LinkedIn violated their right of publicity, which protects them from unauthorized use of their names and likenesses for commercial purposes, and violated a California unfair competition law.