Hulu Users Fight Company's Bid To Dismiss Privacy Case

Hulu privacy

Consumers who are suing Hulu for allegedly sharing data about them say they should be allowed to proceed in court regardless of whether they suffered any economic losses.

The Web users are asking U.S. District Court Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco to reject Hulu's motion to be awarded summary judgment in the potential class-action, which centers on whether Hulu violated a federal privacy law by allegedly sharing information with comScore and Facebook. The Video Privacy Protection Act law prohibits movie rental companies from disclosing information about which movies consumers watch, and provides for damages $2,500 per violation. Congress enacted the law in 1988, after a newspaper in Washington published movie rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

Hulu argues that it's entitled to win the case before trial on several grounds, including that the consumers weren't damaged by any potential disclosures. The company argues that the video privacy law specifies that people who are “aggrieved” by violations can sue for damages. Hulu contends that this language means that people can't recover money unless they have been injured as a result of disclosures.

But the consumers say that the law allows them to recover money regardless of whether they were affected financially.

Congress enacted the VPPA to protect individuals who ... suffered a violation of their right to privacy,” the consumers argue. “A violation of the VPPA simply does not require a threshold showing of pecuniary damages.”

They add that the “economic damage aspect Judge Bork’s injury was never relevant to enactment of the VPPA, nor mentioned in the Legislative history of the statute.

Hulu has acknowledged in court papers that it discloses data to third parties, but says that it never linked users' names to their movie-watching history. Instead, it assigns users a seven-digit User ID, and then transmits data about that User ID.

The consumers say that third parties can figure out people's identities from their User IDs, given that until 2011 Hulu included the User ID in the Web page addresses of users' profile pages. Hulu counters that there's no proof that any third parties were able to figure out users' identities.

Beeler issued a key ruling against Hulu last year, when she said that the federal video law applies to companies that stream video on the Web. She ruled that the law is designed to protect the privacy of people who watch video regardless of technical format. That decision marked the first time a judge explicitly stated that streaming video services are covered by the 1988 privacy law.

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