WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court says an Internet search site that posted false information about people can be sued only if the errors caused actual harm.

The 6-2 ruling on Monday is a narrow victory for the search service Spokeo.com and other technology firms seeking to avoid costly litigation over the publication of inaccurate data.

The justices threw out an appeals court ruling in favor of Thomas Robins, a Virginia resident who sued Spokeo after it posted an online profile about him that was riddled with errors about his age, education, employment and marital status. But the high court sent the case back for further proceedings, giving Robins another chance to show exactly how he was harmed.

Robins sued under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires consumer reporting agencies to offer accurate information. The law allows victims to collect damages of up to $1,000 each without having to show the inaccuracies caused any specific harm.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said a person cannot show an injury simply by claiming a “bare procedural violation” of the credit reporting statute. But he also acknowledged that “the risk of real harm” could be enough.

The ruling is a setback to consumer rights advocates seeking a broader ruling that would let people sue without showing a real injury. But it’s a positive development for technology firms including Facebook and Twitter that had closely watched the case. They were concerned about lawsuits that could expose them to billions of dollars of damages for even trivial violations of the fair credit law and other statutes protecting consumer privacy rights.


The fair credit law was intended to keep companies from compiling inaccurate information that could jeopardize a person’s ability to get loans or find work.

The profile at issue incorrectly stated Robins’ age, that he had a graduate degree, was employed, wealthy and married with children. In fact, Robins was single, unemployed and looking for work. His economic status was far lower that what was described.

Robins claims the false information damaged his job prospects.

The company argued that being falsely portrayed was not enough to show Robins was really harmed.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented. Ginsburg said Robins had shown he was harmed because Spokeo’s inaccuracies created the false impression he was overqualified for work he was seeking or that he might be unwilling to relocate for a job due to family.

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