Actress Loses Privacy Lawsuit Against IMDb.com

An actress who sued Amazon's IMDb.com for revealing her true age lost her case this week, when a jury rejected her contention that the Web company violated its privacy policy by posting her year of birth.

It's not known why the jury rejected actress June Hoang's claim. But the trial did make at least one thing very clear: Lying about your age isn't easy in the era of Big Data.

Hoang first created a profile on IMDb.com back in 2004. At the time, she wrote that she was born in 1978. In fact, she was born in 1971.

Several years later, Hoang no longer wanted 1978 year of birth to remain on her profile. She asked IMDb.com to remove it, but the company refused. She went back and forth with IMDb.com for a while, eventually sending altered documents that purported to show a different year of birth.

Meanwhile, someone at IMDb.com decided to conduct an investigation. As part of that process, a company employee allegedly accessed the credit card data that Hoang submitted when registering for a premium profile on the site. (Hoang used a stage name on her profile, but her real name on the credit card.) After IMDb.com figured out Hoang's real name, the company scoured public records until discovering that she was born in 1971. The company then added that information to her profile.

Hoang sued IMDb.com last year, arguing that the company violated its privacy policy by allegedly accessing her credit card data -- which was supposed to remain confidential.

IMDb.com countered that the fine print in its privacy policy gave it cover. The company pointed to a clause allowing it to draw on information submitted by users in order to respond to requests by consumers.

But the privacy policy also says the company will seek users' consent before disclosing their data with third parties -- like readers of IMDb.com.

Seattle attorney Venkat Balasubramani, who blogged about the trial, says this all adds up to a privacy policy that's “painfully ambiguous about IMDb could do with the information it 'collected.'”

Either way, the jury wasn't swayed that IMDb.com had violated its contract with Hoang.

Hoang isn't the first person to feel betrayed by how a Web service handled registration data. Several years ago, Ohio judge Shirley Strickland Saffold sued the Cleveland Plain Dealer for allegedly unmasking her as a prolific anonymous commenter.

Saffold alleged that the paper violated its privacy policy by revealing in a March 2010 article that someone using her email account had posted comments to 80 stories under the pseudonym "lawmiss."

The paper reported that “lawmiss” had commented on pending legal cases, including a capital murder trial. At the time, then-editor Susan Goldberg argued that the judge's identity was newsworthy.

Unlike Amazon, the Plain Dealer settled with Saffold rather than go to trial. But both cases show just how easily information about people can be accessed -- and used in ways that they didn't authorize.

As Balasubramani writes this week: “IMDb’s ability to look into its registration database and determine Hoang’s true name, and from there obtain her date of birth with just a few mouse-clicks, was a great illustration that you’re never as anonymous or pseudonymous as you think you are.”

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