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Chris Hoofnagle to Help Issue Grants for Study of Online Privacy

By Andrew Cohen

Berkeley Law’s Chris Hoofnagle has been tapped to serve on the three-member board of the new Digital Trust Foundation, which will issue more than $6 million in grants to organizations that study online privacy. The foundation was created as part of a $9.5-million settlement of a class action lawsuit that targeted Facebook’s Beacon program, which published information about Facebook users’ buying habits.

Unless users actively opted out of Beacon, the program tracked their purchasing activity on third-party sites and broadcasted it back to Facebook for their online friends to see. A Washington Post article highlighted Sean Lane of Waltham, Massachusetts, who bought his wife a diamond ring on Overstock.com—only to have her see the purchase in a Facebook news feed. Soon thereafter, a headline appeared on Lane’s Facebook page that read “Sean Lane bought 14k White Gold 1/5 ct Diamond Eternity Flower Ring from overstock.com.”

Lane, who claimed that his wife’s discovery of the purchase ruined his Christmas gift plans, became lead plaintiff for the class of Facebook users that filed suit for violation of several consumer privacy laws, including the Video Privacy Protection Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The complaint alleged that, “Facebook and its affiliates did not give users adequate notice and choice about Beacon and the collection and use of users’ personal information.”

Although Facebook denied any wrongdoing, the popular social networking site shut down the program in November, two years after it launched. Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s information privacy programs and senior fellow at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic, sees the Digital Trust Foundation as “an opportunity to fund a wide range of activities that support consumer privacy and autonomy.”

In addition to Hoofnagle, the new foundation’s board includes privacy advocate Larry Magid and Facebook public policy director Tim Sparapani. Hoofnagle, who criticized the Beacon program when it first came out, has long called attention to the civil liberties risks posed by private-sector database companies—and is eager to help this new digital fund enhance the work of privacy-oriented groups, academics, and technologists.

“I foresee support for organizations with strong records of consumer privacy advocacy,” Hoofnagle says, “but also for developers who need resources to build usable privacy enhancing technologies, and for academic exploration of consumer privacy challenges.”

4/5/2010