December 06, 2011

IMDb and Amazon vs. the "Ageless Actress"

The story of a lawsuit relating to IMDb (part of "outing" the age of an actress (the plaintiff in this case, who wanted to keep that information private) has been bouncing around for a bit now, but recent developments are starting to suggest that Amazon has now "jumped the shark" toward the dark side of this controversy.

While many observers have made light of this (so far anonymous) actress' concerns (after all, your age isn't "protected" data in most circumstances, and it's normally impossible to "unring" a bell in data disclosure situations), the details of this case are actually quite intriguing.

A core issue -- and what should be a point of primary focus -- is how IMDb obtained the actress' age data before publishing it publicly. The actress asserts (and Amazon appears to confirm) that this data was obtained from the sign-up form the actress used to gain access to (fee-based) IMDbPro services.

She claims that her age was requested as part of the routine sign-up sequence along with credit card, address, and other related data, and that it was not made clear that IMDb claimed the right to then use this information in their public database. When she asked them to remove this data from public view, IMDb reportedly declined.

Digging through the rather voluminous IMDb user agreements and privacy policy documents as they exist today at least, it's difficult for me to determine whether IMDb's data usage policy in this respect was definitively spelled out or not.

My own view is that there should always be an extremely clear demarcation between personal information used to sign up for a service, vs. the information that will be used by the service beyond the purposes of signing up (e.g., posting in their publicly accessible database). Such a notice should not just be buried in policies on other pages either -- it should be right up front on the sign-up page, as in "Please note that your age information as entered on this form will become part of your publicly viewable profile on IMDb."

The plaintiff in the case under discussion asserts that no such notice was clearly provided. Obviously this will be an issue for the court to determine, both in terms of the type of notice (if any) provided, and whether Amazon's use of the provided data was in keeping with their legal obligations under their Terms of Service and in all other relevant aspects.

But now this case has taken a rather creepy turn, with Amazon loudly proclaiming to the court that not only should the actress not be concerned about her age being revealed, but that she shouldn't be able to remain anonymous during the case.

For me at least, these assertions leave a bad taste, indeed.

Reasonable persons can argue about whether an actor, actress, or anyone else should be concerned about their age being publicly known (age discrimination is a fact of life both inside and outside of Hollywood). But for Amazon to take the "it's not a big deal" stance when they specifically are accused of being the entity that publicly published data that had previously apparently been carefully kept private, seems highly disingenuous at best.

Where Amazon really joins with Vader and company is their push to have the actress' name (which they obviously already know) be publicly revealed. Their motive seems clear -- essentially, revenge. If her identity is exposed now, Amazon would have created a fait accompli that would serve no purpose other than to create further distress on the part of the plaintiff.

Since public linkage of identity and age are at the center of this case, there is no convincing reason I can see why this actress' identity should be revealed at this stage. We constantly condemn firms that inappropriately attempt to unmask whistleblowers in court. As far as I'm concerned, the plaintiff in this case falls into the same "protected identity" status as those whistleblowers, at this time.

Ultimately, the case should revolve around a single set of issues -- did Amazon/IMDb inappropriately use personal information for their public database? Were their Terms of Service clear regarding their use of IMDbPro signup data? Did the signup forms appropriately and clearly warn potential subscribers how that signup data would be used by Amazon?

If IMDb was honest and clear on these points, with obvious notices on the forms to warn users how submitted data could become public, then Amazon should win this case. If IMDb misused the signup data, or did not in a clear and direct way warn users how signup information could go public, then Amazon should lose.

The rest of Amazon's arguments regarding the case at this point appear to be largely irrelevant and diversionary, and I hope that the court seems through them, and concentrates on the question of Amazon's handling of personal information and related notification disclosures.

So far, Amazon seems to be largely "blowing off" concerns about their behavior in this matter, and worse, is attempting to preemptively shift blame to the plaintiff.

Amazon's stance on this -- regardless of the underlying facts regarding their notifications and Terms of Service -- seems arrogant at best. This isn't the first time we've seen this from Amazon. It is not becoming to them, and it is certainly not in the best interests of the Internet community at large.


Posted by Lauren at December 6, 2011 12:11 PM | Permalink
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