In Spokeo, the Supreme Court leaves more questions than answers.
On Monday the Supreme Court released its opinion in Spokeo v. Robins, a much-anticipated case about “standing” — the legal standard for when people get to file lawsuits — that could have had major ramifications for the digital age. It didn’t live up to the hype.
Here’s a refresher: To get their case heard in court, a plaintiff must have “standing,” which means, in part, that they must suffer some sort of injury. The Spokeo case focused on whether Thomas Robins, who found inaccurate information about his professional credentials, educational history, and personal life in an online database, suffered such an injury. Thomas argued that his statutory rights had been violated, because the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires certain data brokers keep data accurate. But absent a story of some other harm — for example, a compelling case about how that data had been used against him — was this enough?
The case could have been a blockbuster, clarifying when people can and can’t sue — potentially closing the courthouse door for many. But in a murky 6–2 opinion, Justice Alito sent the case back to the lower court for further analysis, holding they hadn’t done enough to determine if Robins actually was injured.
The Court did find that Congress can, in some cases, decide what counts as an injury. As the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Gautam Hans writes:
Some things Congress identifies are injuries on their own, and some things are not. Where the line falls is unclear, and “what qualifies for a sufficient injury” will long be debated.
Although Spokeo ultimately proved anticlimactic, this debate — what does or does not qualify as a “sufficient injury” — will only grow in importance. It may become harder and harder to prove injuries, especially those related to data and privacy. As the federal government argues in its brief, “legally protected interest[s] [are] particularly salient in modern day society given the proliferation of large databases and the ease and rapidity with which information about individuals can be transmitted and retransmitted across the Internet.”