Refunds for Minors, Parents, and Guardians for Purchases of Facebook Credits

On May 26, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California approved the settlement of a class action against Facebook involving in-app purchases of Facebook Credits by minor children. The case was maintained on behalf of a class of children who were Facebook users (“child users”) below the age of 18 from whose Facebook accounts Facebook Credits were purchased. The case was filed by two minor children through their parents on February 23, 2012. The two children and the class were represented by attorneys Brooks Cutter and John R. Parker of the Cutter Law Firm in Sacramento, California; Daniel B. Edelman of the firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, D.C.; and Benjamin Edelman, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School. On March 10, 2015, the Court certified the case as a class action for purposes of declaratory and injunctive relief on behalf of all minor children who were users of Facebook from whose Facebook accounts Facebook Credits were purchased at any time between February 23, 2008 and the date of the certification order, March 10, 2015. At the same time, the Court declined to certify a class action for purposes of class-wide monetary relief.

During the period covered by the suit, hundreds of thousands of child users purchased Facebook Credits for use in playing Facebook-based games and applications. To make such purchases, child users generally used credit cards, debit cards or other payment instruments that belonged to their parents or other responsible adults. Facebook made a practice of retaining the payment information provided at the time of the child user’s initial purchase for easy use in later purchases. Facebook advised that purchases by children were to be made only with the permission of the parent or guardian. Facebook did not, however, require evidence that any of the purchases was actually authorized by the parent, guardian or owner of the payment instrument. In many instances, the child user did not have authorization to use the card or other payment instrument to purchase Facebook Credits. Facebook specified in its terms of use that all transactions are “final”. It later stated that all transactions are “final except as otherwise required by law”.

Facebook’s Terms of Use state that purchase transactions are governed by the law of California. The Family Code of California provides that contracts with minors are voidable by the minor at any time before attaining the age of 18 or within a reasonable time thereafter. The court applied that principle to this case: “The law shields minors from their lack of judgment and experience and under certain conditions vests in them the right to disaffirm their contracts. Although in many instances such disaffirmance may be a hardship upon those who deal with an infant, the right to avoid his contracts is conferred by law upon a minor for his protection against his own improvidence and the designs of others. It is the policy of the law to protect a minor against himself and his indiscretions and immaturity as well as against the machinations of other people and to discourage adults from contracting with an infant.” (MTD decision, October 25, 2012, at pp. 11-12.) The court continued: “[O]ne who provides a minor with goods and services does so at her own risk.” (Id. at p.12.)

Facebook defended the claims in part by arguing that kids had received and used the electronic goods they paid for. The court specifically rejected this reasoning, finding that kids are entitled to refunds even for items they used. “Under California law, a minor may disaffirm all obligations under a contract, even for services previously rendered, without restoring consideration or the value of services rendered to the other party.” (MTD Decision at p.14, internal quotation marks omitted)

Prior to the settlement, Facebook provided an online procedure for refund requests in various specific circumstances such as fraudulent use of a user’s account by a third-party. Facebook’s refund procedure did not include an option to request a refund on the ground that the purchase was made when the user was a minor.

The settlement requires Facebook to apply refund practices and policies with respect to U.S. minors that comply with the California Family Code.

The settlement further requires Facebook to “add to its refund request form for In-App Purchases for U.S. users a checkbox or substantially similar functionality with accompanying text such that users are able to indicate that the In-App Purchases for which they are seeking a refund was made when the user was minor.”

The settlement additionally requires Facebook to “implement a dedicated queue within Facebook to address refund requests in In-App Purchases, made by U.S. Minors subject to verification of minority. The employees staffing the dedicated queue will receive further training regarding how to analyze and process such refund requests in accordance with applicable law.”

If you or your minor child were charged for Facebook credits purchased from an account belonging to someone age 17 or younger, you may be entitled to obtain refunds for such purchases through the use of the dedicated queue established by Facebook as a result of the settlement. Both minor account holders and the parents and guardians of such minors are entitled to claim such refunds. Claim refunds via the Facebook refund tool.

Free access to selected case documents via

Facebook Leaks Usernames, User IDs, and Personal Details to Advertisers updated May 26, 2010

Browse Facebook, and you wouldn’t expect Facebook’s advertisers to learn who you are. After all, Facebook’s privacy policy and blog posts promise not to share user data with advertisers except when users grant specific permission. For example, on April 6, 2010 Facebook’s Barry Schnitt promised: "We don’t share your information with advertisers unless you tell us to (e.g. to get a sample, hear more, or enter a contest). Any assertion to the contrary is false. Period."

My findings are exactly the contrary: Merely clicking an advertiser’s ad reveals to the advertiser the user’s Facebook username or user ID. With default privacy settings, the advertiser can then see almost all of a user’s activity on Facebook, including name, photos, friends, and more.

In this article, I show examples of Facebook’s data leaks. I compare these leaks to Facebook’s privacy promises, and I point out that Facebook has been on notice of this problem for at least eight months. I conclude with specific suggestions for Facebook to fix this problem and prevent its reoccurrence.

Details of the Data Leak

Facebook’s data leak is straightforward: Consider a user who clicks a Facebook advertisement while viewing her own Facebook profile, or while viewing a page linked from her profile (e.g. a friend’s profile or a photo). Upon such a click, Facebook provides the advertiser with the user’s Facebook username or user ID.

Facebook leaks usernames and user IDs to advertisers because Facebook embeds usernames and user IDs in URLs which are passed to advertisers through the HTTP Referer header. For example, my Facebook profile URL is Notice my username (yellow).

Of course, it would be incorrect to assume that a person looking at a given profile is in fact the owner of that profile. A request for a given profile might reflect that user looking at her own profile, but it might instead be some other user looking at the user’s profile. However, when a user views her own profile page, Facebook automatically embeds a "profile" tag (green) in the URL:

Furthermore, when a user clicks from her profile page to another page, the resulting URL still bears the user’s own user ID or username, along with the details of the later-requested page. For example, when I view a friend’s profile, the resulting URL is as shown below. Notice the continued reference to my username (yellow) and the fact that this is indeed my profile (green), along with an appendage naming the user whose page I am now viewing (blue).!/pacoles

Each of these URLs is passed to advertisers whenever a user clicks an ad on Facebook. For example, when I clicked a Livingsocial ad on my own profile page, Facebook redirected me to the advertiser, yielding the following traffic to the advertiser’s server. Notice the transmission in the Referer header (red) of my username (yellow) and the fact that I was viewing my own profile page (green).

GET /deals/socialads_reflector?do_not_redirect=1&preferred_city=152&ref=AUTO_LOWE_Deals_ 1273608790_uniq_bt1_b100_oci123_gM_a21-99 HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*


The same transmission occurs when a user clicks from her profile page to a friend’s page. For example, I clicked through to a friend’s profile,!/pacoles, where I clicked another Livingsocial ad. Again, Facebook’s redirect caused my browser to transmit in its Referer header (red) my username (yellow), the fact that that username reflects my personal profile (green). Interestingly, my friend’s username was omitted from the transmission because it occurred after a pound sign, causing it to be automatically removed from Referer transmission.

GET /deals/socialads_reflector?do_not_redirect=1&preferred_city=152&ref=AUTO_LOWE_Deals_ 1273608790_uniq_bt1_b100_oci123_gM_a21-99 HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*


In further testing, I confirmed that the same transmission occurs when a user clicks from her profile page to a photo page, or to any of various other pages linked form a user’s profile.

With a Facebook member’s username or user ID, current Facebook defaults allow an advertiser (and anyone else) to obtain a user’s name, gender, other profile data, picture, friends, networks, wall posts, photos, and likes. Furthermore, the advertiser already knows the user’s basic demographics, since the advertiser knows the user fits the profile the advertiser had requested from Facebook. For example, in grey highlighting above, the advertiser learned from Facebook my age, gender, and geographic location.

Facebook’s Contrary Statements about User Privacy vis-a-vis Advertisers

Facebook has made specific promises as to what information it will share with advertisers. For one, Facebook’s privacy policy promises "we do not share your information with advertisers without your consent" (section 5). Then, in section 7, Facebook lists eleven specific circumstances in which it may share information with others — but none of these circumstances applies to the transmission detailed above.

Facebook’s recent blog postings also deny that Facebook shares users’ identities with advertisers. In an April 6, 2010 post, Facebook promised: "We don’t share your information with advertisers unless you tell us to (e.g. to get a sample, hear more, or enter a contest). Any assertion to the contrary is false. Period." Facebook’s prior postings were similar. July 1, 2009: "Facebook does not share personal information with advertisers except under the direction and control of a user. … You can feel confident that Facebook will not share your personal information with advertisers unless and until you want to share that information." December 9, 2009: "Facebook never shares personal information with advertisers except under your direction and control." As to all these claims, I disagree. Sharing a username or user ID upon a single click, without any disclosure or indication that such information will be shared, is not at a user’s direction and control.

Facebook Has Been on Notice of This Problem for Eight Months

AT&T Labs researcher Balachander Krishnamurthy and Worcester Polytechnic Instituteprofessor Craig Wills previously identified the general problem of social networks leaking user information to advertisers, including leakage through the Referer headers detailed above. In August 2009, their On the Leakage of Personally Identifiable Information Via Online Social Networks was posted to the web and presented at the Workshop on Online Social Networks (WOSN).

Through Krishnamurthy and Wills’ research, Facebook eight months ago received actual notice of the data leakage at issue. A September 2009 MediaPost article confirms Facebook’s knowledge through it spokesperson’s response. However, Facebook spokesperson Simon Axten severely understated the severity of the data leak: Axten commented "The average Facebook user views a number of different profile pages over the course of a session …. It’s thus difficult for a tracking website to know whether the identifier belongs to the person being tracked, or whether it instead belongs to a friend or someone else whose profile that person is viewing.” I emphatically disagree. As shown above, when a user views her own profile, or a page linked from her own profile, the "?ref=profile" tag is added to the URL — exactly confirming the identity of the profile owner.

What Facebook Should Do

Since receiving actual notice of these data leaks, Facebook has implemented scores of new features for advertising, monetization, information-sharing, and reorganization. Inexplicably, Facebook has failed to address leakage of user information to advertisers. That’s ill-advised and short-sighted: Users don’t expect ad clicks to reveal their names and details, and Facebook’s privacy policy and blog posts promise to honor that expectation. So Facebook needs to adjust its actual practices to meet its promises.

Preventing advertisers from receiving usernames and user IDs is strikingly straightforward: A modified redirect can mask referring URLs. Currently, Facebook uses a simple HTTP 301 redirect, which preserves referring URLs — exactly creating the problem detailed above. But a FORM POST redirect, META REFRESH redirect, or JavaScript redirect could conceal referring URLs — preventing advertisers from receiving username or user ID information.

Instead, Facebook has partially implemented the pound sign method described above — putting some, but not all, sensitive information after a pound sign, with the result that sometimes this information is not transmitted as a Referer. If fully implemented across the Facebook site, this approach might prevent the data leakage I uncovered. However, in my testing, numerous within-Facebook links bypass the pound sign masking. In any event, an improved redirect would be much simpler to implement — requiring only a single adjustment to the ad click-redirect script, rather than requiring changes to URL formats across the Facebook site.

Finally, Facebook should inform users of what has occurred. Facebook should apologize to users, explain why it didn’t live up to its explicit privacy commitments, and establish procedures — at least robust testing, if not full external review — to assure that users’ privacy is correctly protected in the future.

Update – May 26, 2010

On May 20, 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported the problem detailed above. On or about that same day, Facebook removed the ref=profile tags that were the crux of the data leak.

I yesterday spoke with Arturo Bejar, a Facebook engineer who investigated this problem. Arturo told me that after Krishnamurthy and Wills’ article, he reviewed relevant Facebook systems in search of leakage of user information. At that time, he found none, in that Facebook revealed the URLs users were browsing when they clicked ads, but did not indicate whether the user clicking a given ad was in fact the owner of the profile showing that ad. However, in a subsequent Facebook redesign, beginning in February 2010, Facebook user home pages received a new "profile" button which carried the ref=profile URL tags I analyze above. Because this tag was added without a further privacy review, Arturo tells me that he and others at Facebook did not consider the interaction between this tag and the problem I describe above. Arturo says that’s why this problem occurred despite the prior Krishnamurthy and Wills article.

Arturo also pointed out that the problem I describe did not affect advertisers whose landing pages were pages on Facebook (rather than advertisers’ own external sites).

Meanwhile, Facebook’s May 24 "Protecting Privacy with Referrers" presents Facebook’s view of the problem in greater detail. Facebook’s posting offers a fine analysis of the various methods of redirects and Facebook’s choice among them. It’s worth a read.

After discussing the problem with Arturo and reading Facebook’s new post, I reached a more favorable impression of Facebook’s response. But my view is tempered by Facebook’s ill-advised attempts to downplay the breach.

  • Rather than affirmatively describing the specific design flaw, Facebook’s post describes what "could" "potentially" occur. Facebook’s post never gives a clear affirmative statement of the problem.
  • Facebook says advertisers would need to "infer" a user’s username/ID. But usernames and IDs are sent directly, in clear and unambiguous URLs, hardly requiring complex analysis
  • Facebook claims that the breach affected only "one case … if a user takes a specific route on the site" (WSJ quote). Facebook also calls the problem "a rarely occurring case" (posting). I dispute these characterizations. It is hardly "rare" for a user to view her own profile. To view her own profile and click an ad? There’s no reason to think that’s any less frequent than clicking an ad elsewhere. To view her own profile, click through to another page, and then click an ad? That’s perfectly standard. Furthermore, although Facebook told the Journal there is "one case" in which data is leaked improperly, in fact I’ve found many such cases including clicking from profile to ad, from profile to friend’s page to ad, and from profile to photo page to ad, to name three.
  • Through transmission in HTTP Referer headers, usernames and IDs appears reach advertisers’ web servers in a manner such that default server log files would store this data indefinitely, and default analytics would tabulate it accordingly. Facebook says it has "no reason to believe that any advertisers were exploiting" the data breach I reported, but the fact is, this data ends up in a place where advertisers could (and, as to historic data, still can) access it easily, using standard tools, and at their convenience.
  • Although Facebook’s post says the problem is "potential," I found that a user’s username/ID is sent with each and every click in the affected circumstances.

So the problem was substantial, real, and immediate. Facebook errs in suggesting the contrary.