Foundation CEO sues LinkedIn over bogus profile

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If you don't stake out your social media territory, someone else will.

That's the new reality reflected in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Pittsburgh's federal court by a foundation head against the networking firm LinkedIn Corp.

Rick D. Senft, president and CEO of the Passavant Memorial Home Foundation, wants to know who put his name, personal cell phone and personal email on the popular site -- and so far, LinkedIn won't tell him.

"This represents a big deal and a big cultural challenge that has hardly been worked out in the legal realm, in the moral realm, in the political realm -- you name it," said Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet and American Life Project. "This is a case that represents a whole lot of issues that we're just beginning to talk about."

Among them: Does anyone with even a modest public profile really have the option not to participate in social media?

The proliferation of social media sites, and their role in making or breaking bottom lines and reputations, is "almost requiring you to be in those spaces whether you want to or not," said Holly Maust, principal at Interactive Swim, an agency specializing in online marketing. "It's extremely important that you manage your social media profiles."

Mr. Senft's Marshall-based foundation assists people who have developmental disabilities. His attorney, Jay D. Marinstein, declined comment on his behalf.

The lawsuit said that Mr. Senft, of Cranberry, "is careful to keep his personal contact information private." But in October, he stumbled upon a LinkedIn account that he neither authored nor authorized.

The complaint doesn't detail any resulting damages or inconvenience. Nor does it say why Mr. Senft insisted, even after LinkedIn took down the page for him, on knowing who created the account.

"It's a little strange to me why he might want that, particularly on LinkedIn," said Ms. Maust. "LinkedIn is not typically a place where someone might damage you." Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn isn't usually used to convey personal information.

Mr. Marinstein wrote to LinkedIn asking whether the company had "gathered any information that might lead to the identity" of the profile's creator. LinkedIn's attorneys responded that they couldn't provide any such information outside of a "valid legal process."

That response is standard for online companies, which want to avoid liability. "They typically will not act in any fashion without a court order," said Phil Laboon, president of South Side-based Eyeflow Internet Marketing, whose services to clients include cleaning up their social networking profiles.

Mr. Marinstein's resulting lawsuit asks only that LinkedIn reveal the creator of the "fraudulent account."

Mr. Laboon understands the desire to find the imposter.

"If you just let it go and let your social media run wild, you can have people Googling your name and all sorts of bad stuff come up," he said. Mr. Senft, he added, "could've set up his own LinkedIn, but not provided [contact] information."

If an imposter had put up a page with Mr. Senft's name, but their own contact info, they could have intercepted communications meant for him and wreaked havoc with his reputation and business dealings, Mr. Laboon noted.

LinkedIn's public relations department could not be reached for comment.

Confusion about how to control one's information in the social networking realm extends even to the industry's royalty. On Wednesday, news broke that Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, was upset when a picture she posted on that site was scooped up by someone and distributed on Twitter. She was reportedly scrambling to change her privacy settings.

In politics, there has long been a mantra that if you don't define yourself, someone else will. Social media takes that maxim to the masses.

"I want to define myself. I want to project who I am to the world," Mr. Rainie said. "If you have an enemy at work, or you have an ex-partner who hates your guts, or a rival who is trying to sell the same kind of widget ... the same kinds of tools used by and against politicians can be used in this new sphere by anybody who has a beef."

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Rich Lord:, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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