Hulu argues in new court papers that it does not violate a federal video privacy law by sharing “anonymous” data about viewers with ad networks and companies engaged in market research and analytics.
“Hulu cannot be liable for disclosing an anonymous User ID to comScore or Nielsen, or to any other service provider,” the online video company says in a motion for summary judgment filed last week with U.S. District Court Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco.
The company is facing a potential class-action lawsuit for allegedly violating the Video Privacy Protection Act, a 1988 law that prohibits movie rental companies from disclosing information about which movies consumers watch.
Hulu acknowledges in its most recent papers that it discloses people's movie-viewing history to third parties, but argues that doing so is legal because it doesn't link users' names to their movie-watching history. Instead, it assigns users a seven-digit User ID, and then transmits data about that User ID.
“Although Hulu provides comScore and Nielsen with the titles of videos its users have watched, Hulu does not also tell them (or any others who receive video viewing information) the names, addresses, emails, or birthdate of anyone who watched that video,” the company argues. “To protect its users’ privacy, Hulu uses an anonymous User ID, which does not reveal the name or any other identifying information about a user.”
The consumers alleged in their lawsuit that third parties could figure out people's identities from their User IDs, given that Hulu included the User ID in the Web page addresses of users' profile pages. Hulu says in its court papers that it stopped doing so two years ago.
The company says there's no proof that any third parties were able to figure out users' identities. Hulu adds that it wouldn't be liable even if an outside company was able to tie users' names to the videos they watched. “Disclosing information that is non-identifying does not create liability for Hulu merely because a third party later combined with other information to identify a specific user,” Hulu argues.
Hulu lost a key battle in this lawsuit last year, when Beeler ruled that the federal video law applies to companies that stream video on the Web. She said in her decision that the law is designed to protect the privacy of people who watch video regardless of technical format.
That decision marked the first time that a court explicitly ruled that streaming video services are covered by the 1988 privacy law, which was passed after a newspaper in Washington obtained and published the video rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.