Judge calls out LinkedIn over spammy invitations, says emails can harm reputation

LinkedIn(s lnkd) users who are suing the company over its aggressive marketing practices got a big boost on Thursday, when a federal judge ruled they can go forward with a class action lawsuit that turns on the company’s familiar “I’d like to add you to my professional network” emails.

The users, who include publishing and movie executives, had filed a complaint in September that accused LinkedIn of “breaking into” their Gmail accounts in order to send out repeat invitations to anyone who they had never contacted by email.

The complaint relates to a feature of LinkedIn that invites new users to “Connect with people you know” and existing users to “See who you already know,” and then looks for matches based on their email address books. The users’ email contacts then receive an automated email, and then two follow-up ones.

In Thursday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh expressed sympathy for users’ complaints that the multiple emails risked harming their so-called “right of publicity” under California law, and that it was an unfair business practice:

Specifically, the second and third endorsement emails 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. […]

individuals who receive second and third email invitations to join LinkedIn after declining one or two previous email invitations to join LinkedIn from the same sender may become annoyed at the sender, which could be professionally or personally harmful [emphasis added]

Koh, however, found that only the second and third email invitations harmed user rights, and not the initial one. She also rejected the complaint’s more dramatic claims that LinkedIn had violated anti-hacking laws by “tunneling in” to users’ Gmail accounts.

In allowing the complaint to go forward, the judge rejected LinkedIn’s claim that the emails did not represent any economic value for LinkedIn. Instead, Koh pointed to a successful lawsuit against Facebook over  “Sponsored Stories,” and quoted Facebook(s fb) CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement  –“trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message” — to say that LinkedIn received marketing benefits from the emails.

LinkedIn did not immediately reply to a request for comment or to say if the company will appeal. I’ll update if I hear back.

Koh’s ruling comes in response to a motion by LinkedIn to dismiss the case, so it is not a final decision. But Koh’s remarks in the ruling suggest that LinkedIn would not fare better at later stages in the case, suggesting the company may choose to settle instead.

Here’s a copy of the ruling with the relevant bits underlined:

LinkedIn Order Judge Koh

[protected-iframe id=”50a5dd48f0584e6d849b31569d49af0b-14960843-34118173″ info=”//www.scribd.com/embeds/229519346/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&show_recommendations=true” width=”100%” height=”600″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no”]