Two Classmates.com members have sued the well-known social networking site, accusing it of exposing members' personal information to unknown parties without giving a proper warning.

The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, concerns a January 30 e-mail announcing that the site was coming up with ways to let more people use Classmates from around the Internet without having to visit Classmates.com.

To do that, we're about to start making your public Classmates content available to people using a variety of sites and devices, including Facebook and the iPhone, the message continued. This content can include your name, photos, community affiliations, and more Look for our new Facebook app: We're about to release a Facebook application that lets people curious about their old friends and schoolmates explore our class lists and member activity.

The e-mail insisted that Classmates care[s] about your privacy as much as we do your ability to catch up with your past, and that it was accordingly updating our privacy policy to make these new features possible, and you're able to opt out.

But plaintiffs Thomas Ferguson and Patrick Fahy say that the e-mail is presented in such an innocuous and favorable manner that Users would not even be tempted to 'opt out' of the new policy. They specifically complain that most Classmates users have no idea what an 'app' or 'application' is or does, and that Classmates members are never explicitly warned that the new policy will expose the personal information of Classmates Users to millions of persons.

Older users

The plaintiffs' first point -- that the website doesn't adequately explain how users' information will be shared -- is especially salient in light of Classmates' unique demographics.

Among social networking sites, Classmates has the largest number of users over 65 -- fully eight percent of that demographic is registered with the site. Since most of those users aren't also registered with Facebook or MySpace, assuming that they'll know what an app is, much less how it works, is a stretch at best.

Finally, Ferguson and Fahy point out that Classmates has 'pre-clicked' the option to permit disclosure of personal information via the Applications; that is, it forces consumers to take affirmative action in order to opt-out. This type of 'negative option' is well-known to be confusing to consumers, according to the complaint.

Classmates' privacy modification was part of a strategy to tap into Facebook's more than 100 million users, and direct their attention to the store of information accumulated over the years on the Classmates Web site, according to the plaintiffs. It has done this despite the fact that (unlike Classmates) Facebook has been repeatedly sued for violating its users' privacy rights and mishandling information contained on its Web site.

Classmates, which launched in 1995, has around 40 million members and 3.5 million paid subscribers. Despite its relative antiquity, in 2006 Nielsen Online ranked the site third in unique visitors per month -- behind only MySpace and Blogger.

The site has not been especially popular with ConsumerAffairs.com readers, many of whom have repeatedly tried to cancel their accounts, but continue to be billed for the service. As Jamie of Weatherford, Tx, wrote last week:

Classmates.com is a ripoff. Can't get them to stop charging my credit card although I cancelled my membership over 6 months ago. You can call and never get a human on the phone. They're always "experiencing an unusual high volume of calls" and your placed in the que to wait and wait. Try online contact with no success either.

The suit accuses Classmates of breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and violations of the Electronic Data Privacy Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act. The proposed class -- consisting of all registered users of the site -- is seeking an injunction and unspecified damages.