1:27pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Class Action Targets Ashley Madison Over Lack of Real Women on Cheating Site
In the wake of a hack and leak of Ashley Madison data, the cheating website's parent Avid Life has been subject to about a dozen class action lawsuits. One filed on Friday takes the prize for being most potentially groundbreaking.
This one is special not only because it has a lead plaintiff, Christopher Russell of Maryland, willing to be identified as a customer. In fact, Russell and others similarly situated aren't even objecting to what Avid Life did or didn't do to ensure the security of their data.
No, this new lawsuit aims to leverage what was allegedly revealed through the data breach — lots of so-called "fembots."
"The released information revealed that 'some significant percentage—the hackers say 90-95 percent—of female profiles on the site are fake, meant to lure paying male clients into believing that the place is teeming with women ready to be whisked away to hotel rooms,'" states the complaint filed in Maryland federal court.
It will be worth watching to see whether a judge accepts evidence obtained directly or indirectly from hackers. This was an issue we raised after the Sony hack with legal observers expressing differing opinions on the admissibility of leaked info in fall-out lawsuits. Some believe that judges won't care as long as litigants weren't responsible for the leak while others believe judges won't want to encourage future hackers.
The big legal issue notwithstanding, the Ashley Madison hack has provoked lots of analysis on the uncovered data. At the moment, the lawsuit points to Annalee Newitz' much discussed column for Gizmodo.
After looking at Ashley Madison’s source code, Newitz wrote that "Ashley Madison’s army of fembots appears to have been a sophisticated, deliberate, and lucrative fraud. The code tells the story of a company trying to weave the illusion that women on the site are plentiful and eager. Whatever the total number of real, active female Ashley Madison users is, the company was clearly on a desperate quest to design legions of fake women to interact with the men on the site."
Internal Ashley Madison emails are cited, including ones where company CEO Noel Biderman allegedly directed others to create engager fembots. The lawsuit also addresses the response by the company to California customers who filed a complaint with the state's attorney general and accused the company of fraud. In response to the investigation, Avid Life Media’s general counsel Mike Dacks reportedly drafted a response blaming “criminal elements” — outsiders — for what was happening. The company attributed fake profiles to the work of random fraudsters.
Now, represented by attorney Gary Mason, Charles LaDuca and Michael Braunstein, the proposed class action aims to hold Ashley Madison's parent liable for a violation of Maryland's Consumer Protection Act and unjust enrichment.
According to the complaint, Russell joined Ashley Madison after separating from his wife, relied on "promotions, advertising and representations," and spent money for "credits" to interact with women on the site. "More likely than not, these women were fembots with fake profiles created by Ashley Madison," says the lawsuit.
In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for Ashley Madison gave The Hollywood Reporter the same comment it has been issuing to media to all class actions: "We are aware of reports concerning lawsuits being filed against Avid Life Media. Avid Life Media Inc. will address any litigation in the appropriate forum, and will not be commenting further.”