The challenges presented in 2020 have caused most people to radically alter the way they do business and how they live their lives in general. Activities that were once conducted in-person have been transitioned to taking place online, from trials and court hearings to holiday dinners and birthdays.
Now more than ever, many of us may find ourselves glued to our devices as we strive to stay connected, through social media apps like Facebook, or to look for mindless entertainment on apps like TikTok. But while most people don’t see the harm in hours spent on social media, it’s important to be aware of the amount of potentially sensitive personal information that you may be inadvertently revealing online.
In this edition of Women in the Law, we profile an expert in the perils of online privacy. Attorney Lesley Weaver of Bleichmar Fonti & Auld LLP was appointed co-lead counsel for plaintiffs in In re: Facebook, Inc. Consumer Privacy User Profile Litigation. Lesley fought to hold social media giant Facebook Inc. accountable for violating consumer fraud and privacy laws by allowing hundreds of third-party apps, including Cambridge Analytica, to bundle and sell Facebook users’ personally identifiable information without their knowledge or consent.
Her list of achievements neither stops nor starts with her tireless work in the Facebook litigation. Lesley Weaver strives to make a difference in not just the lives of her clients, but wants to make a positive impact on society as a whole by affecting change in regulation through the cases she litigates. While a sense of civic duty was always on her mind, the idea of being an attorney wasn’t.
When asked if she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, Lesley says, “My dad was an attorney, so I was playing ‘lawyer’ from the age of five but I really didn’t seriously think of becoming a lawyer until I was around 22. It was at that point I was faced [with choosing] between a career in the law or pursuing a career in the arts. But I was always instilled with a strong sense of civic duty and I felt that as a lawyer, I would be able to do some actual good and make a positive impact in people’s lives and I think that is, in the end, what drove me to become an attorney.”
It is her background in the arts, however, that helped to influence how she practices law. “For me in particular, it’s important to develop a storyline and really understand the narrative behind the case in order to get to the heart of an issue. Framing a case in this way is really important to me— not only for when I am trying a case, but also when I am selecting a case. I’m fortunate to be in a unique position where I am able to select which cases I want to work on, and I get to ask myself ‘Does this case really matter? How will the outcome of this case change the way things are done?’”
Making a difference is what drove Lesley to the plaintiffs’ bar. Early in her career, she worked as a trade dress attorney and worked on cases between rival clothing brands. However, focusing on cases that hinged on a difference of thread color on the trim of a shoe—unsurprisingly—wasn’t a good fit. Lesley says that, “after six months of working on these types of cases, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t truly interested in what I was doing. So, I left and that’s when I started doing plaintiffs work.”
When speaking about her work in the privacy realm, Lesley admits that she really didn’t understand the true importance until she began work on, and was eventually named co-lead counsel, in the landmark In re: Facebook, Inc. Consumer Privacy User Profile Litigation. “Before I was appointed co-lead counsel in this litigation, I really didn’t understand to the full extent what was going on with consumers’ information online on social media sites. But once I dug in, I started to realize what was happening and it was truly eye opening.”
Lesley points out that most average social media users don’t give much thought to privacy agreement of a social media app before hitting the “agree” button and uploading a variety of personal information onto the platform. “I think most people when they are online think ‘I have nothing to hide,’ but what the public at large doesn’t understand is the actual extent of the surveillance state that we are living in.” Her work in the realm of online privacy has unveiled the true nature of seemingly frivolous social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. In a complex web of data collection and seemingly subliminal marketing, Lesley explains how social media apps are collecting users’ personal information and creating dossiers about each user in order to draw inferences about what a user’s behavior is going to be and what action they are going to take in the next second, in a bid to influence that decision.
While many may still dismiss the data collection as harmlessly trying to sell merchandise to a captive audience, Lesley explains that there is a darker side to this practice. “It’s not just trying to influence consumers to buy things, its bigger than that.” In order to understand the full extent of social media privacy violations, it’s important to first understand litigation attempting to block it.
Suits were originally filed in spring 2018 when news broke that prior to the 2016 United States presidential election, Facebook had allowed the political data firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest the data of millions of Facebook users in order to create detailed voter profiles. Lesley explains, “Cambridge Analytica wasn’t trying to influence Facebook users to buy a consumer product. What they were doing was targeting so-called ‘lazy liberals’ in certain key states and trying to influence them not to vote by assuring them that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election.”
Lesley continues to bring to light the serious privacy issues that average consumers overlook as they increasingly spend time on social media and allow their children to use the apps, many times unmonitored. “The real problem is that the content that you are receiving, that is supposed to be influencing your behavior, is a one-way mirror. They know everything about you and you know nothing about them, which is not the way that we have constructed society. In this country, we have made decisions as a society to promote transparency. For example, when I as an attorney advertise, I have to say “I am a lawyer” so the public is aware that they are being marketed to and are aware of what they are seeing. Or when a political campaign is advertising on television, they need to say who they are and who paid for the ad. The same goes for drug companies; they have to be transparent about who they are and what they are promoting.”
Lesley concludes, “We have set up our society in such a way that transparency is top priority, so that we can have the ability to engage in good judgment and assess the credibility of the message that we are receiving. However, because the 1996 Communications Decency Act has removed all those restrictions, thereby granting websites broad legal immunity, and declares (with some exceptions) that Facebook and similar social media sites don’t have to monitor for content, users really don’t know who is talking to them or trying to influence them especially on social media. In essence, people have lost the ability to regulate their own intake.”
Beyond her crusade for tighter restrictions on online privacy, Lesley’s resume includes a long list of legal achievements. She joined her current firm, Bleichmar Fonti & Auld LLP, as a partner in 2016 and opened the firm’s California office. In 2015, Lesley was appointed by U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer to the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee in In re Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation, which resulted in a recovery of a staggering $14.7 billion for class members and nearly $5 billion for the environment, making it the largest automotive class action recovery ever.
Maintaining a strong sense of duty to protect public interest, consumers and public entities has been a guiding force in Lesley’s career, as she has tirelessly fought to make a positive impact on the lives of her clients and for society as a whole. When speaking about her legal career, Lesley remarks that she has made a concerted effort not to stay “in the box” or become complacent. “It was important to me to work to develop the skills set to do all the things that I knew that I could do, and that I wanted to do. I knew that I was good at the client interaction side of a lawsuit. I knew that I was a strong litigator. I wanted to make sure that I was able to be a part of all aspects of a suit that I was involved in and not just hedged into one component. I always knew that I wanted to be a well-rounded lawyer.”
When asked what advice she would give to new attorneys just starting out, Lesley says, “Firstly, I would say to find someone who you admire and work for them. Let them help you learn how to become the lawyer you want to be. Secondly, I would say once you have your skill set down, start getting clients because having your own ability to generate work will always give you freedom.”
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