Wall Street Journal Accused Of Violating Video Privacy Law With Roku App

Dow Jones has been hit with a potential class-action lawsuit accusing it of violating federal video privacy laws with the Wall Street Journal's Roku app.

Georgia resident Terry Locklear alleges in her complaint that the news company's app automatically transmits information about the Wall Street Journal Live clips that users view -- along with the serial number of their Roku devices -- to the analytics and video ad company mDialog. Locklear argues that this activity violates the Video Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits video providers from revealing consumers' personally identifiable information without their written consent.

“Unbeknownst to its users ... each time they view video clips or news reports, the WSJ Channel sends a record of such activities to an unrelated third-party data analytics and video advertising company called mDialog,” she alleges in her lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. “The complete record is sent each time that a user views a video clip or news report, along with the serial number associated with the user’s Roku device.”

Locklear asserts in the complaint that a Roku's serial number is a “persistent identifier” that can be matched with users' identities to reveal “a wealth of extremely precise information” about them. “Software applications that transmit a Roku’s serial number along with the user’s activity provide an intimate look into how the user interacts with their channels, which can reveal information such as the user’s political or religious affiliation, employment information, articles and videos viewed, and even detail about the sequence of events in which the user interacts with their Roku,” she alleges.

Dow Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit is one of several recent cases alleging that companies that offer online video violate the Video Privacy Protection Act, which is one of the only national privacy laws. It was passed in 1988 after a Washington newspaper obtained the video rental history of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Facebook and Hulu are among the companies sued in recent years for allegedly violating that law with their online offerings.

Hulu attempted to argue that the federal video privacy law didn't apply to companies that stream video. But U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Laurel Beeler in California rejected that position, ruling that the law is aimed at protecting the privacy of video watchers regardless of technical format.

It's not yet clear how a court will view the lawsuit against Dow Jones -- especially the theory that transmitting a Roku's serial number can violate users' privacy. University of Minnesota law professor William McGeveran says that the lawsuit's likelihood of success could hinge on what additional data is sent to the analytics company. He adds that the Video Privacy Protection Act allows companies to transmit information about users for marketing purposes, provided that they also offer a conspicuous opt-out.

McGeveran points out that questions about how the 1988 law applies to new devices, like the Roku, mark “the next frontier in thinking about video privacy.” To date, the prior lawsuits against Web companies have focused on video delivered to desktops and laptops, as opposed to via mobile apps or set-top boxes.

He adds that media companies like Dow Jones aren't necessarily as focused on laws about video privacy as companies like Netflix or Blockbuster, which rent movies as their primary business. “The more we're moving to video on other platforms, the more you're going to have [companies] that aren't used to the unusual rules for video,” he says.

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