spokeo’s supreme court case and online reputation management (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/tabor-roeder/)

There are endless data points about individuals available online, often for a price. On websites like Spokeo, you can learn about a person’s education, income, court history, and more. But what’s listed isn’t always correct, and that can be harmful for those with inaccurate information. A Supreme Court case is now asking whether companies that share information about individuals online can be held liable for damages whether harm can be proven or not.

Why Spokeo’s Information Matters to Your Reputation

If you’ve searched for yourself or anyone else online, you may have come across the website Spokeo. Spokeo is a people search website offering a selection of aggregated data for individuals. It often pops up in reputation searches for individuals, offering information about income, religion, family members, court records, credit status, even a satellite photo of an individual’s home — with its estimated value.

In short, this website offers a highly detailed snapshot of an individual’s life. The information offered on Spokeo and similar websites can be very valuable from a reputation perspective, and it can cause serious damage if the information the website shares is not correct.

Spokeo gets its information from public records, marketing data, social media, and other sources both online and off — and that information can be flawed. This can cause trouble for individuals with false or misleading information listed on the website, as it can negatively influence job offers, personal relationships, and more. All it takes is the hint of a negative court record to throw a recruiter off, and these details and more are all laid bare on Spokeo — whether they are accurate or not.

Spokeo’s listings come with a statement that data is not verified or evaluated, and that it is not a credit reporting agency. They insist that no information on Spokeo should be used for determining eligibility for employment, housing, insurance, credit, or any other purposes under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). But in a Supreme Court case, an individual is arguing that Spokeo should be held to the standards of the FCRA — and face penalties for listing inaccurate information about individuals.

The Spokeo Supreme Court Case

Spokeo’s sometimes-inaccurate information has landed them in a case that’s made it to the Supreme Court. In short, Thomas Robins discovered that there is inaccurate information about him on Spokeo.

Robins sued Spokeo under the FCRA, which offers damages to consumers who have a false report. The case was thrown out by a federal district judge in Los Angeles because he could not show that he had been hurt by the profile that indicated that he is wealthy with a graduate degree, while in reality he struggles to find a job. Robins claims his job prospects were hurt by the profile, which is tough to prove. But as Justice Elena Kagan points out, individuals don’t always know if they’ve been impacted by inaccurate credit reports or consumer profiles.

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins. The website has been criticized and faced lawsuits for privacy complaints and related issues before, but this is the only case that’s made it to the Supreme Court.

The lawsuit has made it to the Supreme Court to determine whether Robins has standing under the Constitution. Spokeo argues that Robins should have to show an injury or harm to win the case, while Robins says he should win simply because Spokeo broke the fair credit law.

Ultimately, this case will make a decision about how individuals can sue companies for violations against data and consumer protection laws. This could be a win for individuals seeking accurate information online, but on the other hand, could cripple information brokers including Spokeo as they face potentially millions in class action penalties.

Standards for Personal Information Online

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) did a report on data brokers like Spokeo, calling for better transparency and accountability in the industry. The FTC pointed out that although these brokers may share thousands of data points on billions of people world wide, most consumers are not able to check, confirm, or correct any of this information. And at the same time, the information may be used by recruiters and other individuals making sensitive decisions.

It’s not clear whether websites like Spokeo are subject to the FCRA, but this case could change that. This is not the first time Spokeo has struggled the FCRA, either. In 2012, Spokeo paid $800,000 to settle FTC charges for marketing information to employers and recruiters in violation of the FCRA. This information was marketed without taking steps to protect consumers, which is required under the FCRA. In the 2012 case, the FTC alleged that Spokeo operated as a consumer reporting agency.

Based on the current disclaimer on Spokeo’s website encouraging users not to use their information for eligibility purposes, it seems that Spokeo has changed their marketing practices to avoid falling under the FCRA. But as the website continues to share information that’s useful for sensitive decisions, we may see this definition challenged in the future.

What The Spokeo Supreme Court Case Means for You

If Robins wins this case, individuals would be able to sue for inaccurate information whether they incur actual harm for not. This is great news for people concerned with avoiding confusion and embarrassment in online reputation management. Websites with personal data will be subject to similar lawsuits and will be held accountable for reporting accurate information. For anyone who’s had trouble finding a job, making connections, or otherwise establishing a positive reputation online because of inaccurate information, this case would offer the opportunity to have the information fixed.

The Future of the Spokeo Case

While a win for Robins would be a victory for privacy and personal reputation management, many believe that the Supreme Court will not side with consumers, as the court does not want to encourage class action lawsuits against companies. Predictions do cut the vote close, though: currently, it looks like it will be a 5-4 vote in favor of Spokeo. We’re likely to hear the ruling in early 2016.