Commentary

Media Companies Side With Spokeo In Fight Over Incorrect Data

Consumers should not be able to pursue lawsuits for "technical violations" of federal and state privacy laws, a coalition of magazine publishers and other media companies argues in Supreme Court papers.

The media companies are asking the Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that Spokeo displayed incorrect information about Virginia resident Thomas Robins -- including that he was in his 50s, married with children, and employed in a professional or technical field. Robins alleged at the time that he was seeking a job, and that the errors potentially could affect his search.

He's suing Spokeo for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires credit reporting agencies to ensure the accuracy of background reports used for employment, housing and credit.

Spokeo argues that Robins shouldn't be able to sue in federal court unless he can show that he suffered a tangible injury.

The magazine publishers and other media companies -- including Time Inc., Rodale, A&E Television, Meredith Corporation, Advance Publications and National Public Radio -- are siding with Spokeo. They argue in a friend-of-the-court brief that consumers in class-action cases "have leveraged alleged technical violations of federal and state privacy acts and the availability of statutory damages to coerce huge settlements under the threat of enormous potential statutory awards."

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"Media companies have been the targets of a surprisingly large number of such suits by uninjured plaintiffs," Time Inc., NPR and the others write.

While media companies do not appear to have faced lawsuits for violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act, some have been sued for violating other laws -- including the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act (which prohibits disclosure of personally identifiable information about consumers who rent video) and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (which prohibits companies from using robocallers to send text messages to people's cell phones).

Time Inc. and the other companies say that those laws, which predate the modern Internet era, "have been extended to online activities and used as the basis for numerous class action suits, often turning statutes drafted in an analog world into something of a digital media quagmire," the companies write.

They add that a ruling against Spokeo could lead news companies to engage in "self-censorship" by curbing their use of digital platforms. For example, they write, the threat of litigation alleging violations of video privacy laws "may cause media companies to reevaluate the distribution of content through video -- despite the fact that growing numbers of Americans rely on the Internet to get their news and entertainment."

The media companies aren't the only ones siding with Spokeo. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also weighed in on Spokeo's behalf, as did tech companies and other trade groups.

Robins is expected to submit his written arguments to the Supreme Court later this month.

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