Are your old friends really trying to get back in touch with you, or are we just dealing with another case of false advertising?

Are your old friends really trying to get in touch with you, or are we just dealing with another case of false advertising?

With the advent of websites like Facebook, Myspace, and Friendster, the Internet has made it increasingly easy to stay in touch with classmates from years past. A simple search of an old friend’s name can restore lines of communication that have faded over time. But what happens when the service tricks people into thinking that their former classmates are looking for them?

On October 30, 2008, Anthony Michaels filed a putative class action suit in the Superior Court for the State of California against one of the Internet’s oldest networking services, Classmates.com. According to the complaint, Michaels, who had registered for a Classmates.com free membership, began to receive emails from the site that informed him that his former classmates had been viewing his profile and leaving him messages. In order to see these messages, Michael was required to upgrade his membership to “Gold” status, at a cost of $15. Unfortunately for Michaels, not a single former classmate had actually tried to contact him. The ensuing lawsuit alleged intentional misrepresentation, negeligent misrepresentation, negligence, fradulent concealment, and violations of several provisions of the California Business & Professions Code.

There are some who may feel that a lawsuit over the loss of $15 and a touch of hurt feelings is a bit over zealous. There are others, however, who would love nothing more than to see Classmates.com “sued into oblivion” due to the irritation of receiving their unsolicited and unwelcome emails over an extended period of time, and there is no disputing that the service has received its fair share of complaints. Regardless of how one feels about the motivations behind the suit, the outcome could have significant ramifications on the future of Internet advertising.

Although Classmates.com could have a strong defense if it can prove that someone was actually contacting Michaels but defrauding Classmates.com by claiming to have gone to his high school, the larger scale ramifications of the suit are apparent. Classmates.com spent $30 million on advertising in 2005. Other social networking sites use similar advertising methods to convince users to upgrade to a membership status that requires payment. A win for Michaels would certainly change the way that social networking sites advertise their services, but the filing of the lawsuit itself could result in many of the sites changing their ways in order to proactively avoid legal consequences, which will inevitably run up some significant costs. Something as simple as including the name of the person who is trying to make contact has been proposed as a possible solution, but only time will tell to what extent websites will be forced to alter their respective protocols. Who knows– maybe in the near future, the junk email littering one’s inbox will actually contain truthful, accurate, and relevant information.

–Ed Wenger

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