Privacy Lawsuit Filed Against Blockbuster

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Blockbuster may not be able to rely on the what I learned in Kindergarten defense when it answers charges it illegally shared a plaintiff’s movie preferences with third parties. In a suit filed in Texas earlier this month, Cathryn Harris sued Blockbuster for sharing her rental history on Facebook.

The suit, which is currently seeking class action status, claims Blockbuster’s actions of feeding renters video choices to a news feed violate the Videotape Privacy Protection Act, (“VPPA”) which states in relevant part that a video tape service provider is liable under the VPPA if that provider knowingly discloses personally identifiable information without the renter’s “informed, written consent.” Harris contends the online “opt out” options she was given did not constitute her informed written consent as intended by the VPPA.

The sharing comes as a result of Blockbuster’s participation in the Beacon advertising program, which has received considerable attention and criticism from consumer activist groups and corporations over the past 18 months. Beacon is a form of “social advertising” that allows Facebook friends to see your purchases (as well as other transactions you make) through news feeds. After considerable controversy, Facebook changed the “opt out” provision to an “opt in” provision, so that users would not inadvertently share their personal information simply by accepting the use agreement. Even so, last year, Coca-Cola announced it would not be participating in the program, as did Overstock.com and several other companies, citing privacy concerns. For instance, research showed that participating companies were sending information to Facebook even for buyers who were not Facebook members. Although Facebook claims it deletes such information if and when it is received, many partner sites determined the program contained too many privacy problems for them to feel comfortable participating.

The VPPA was enacted in 1987. It is rarely cited and was clearly not created with the sort of digital transmission of private information in mind that happens today. In fact, the VPPA was enacted after Robert Bork’s video rental history was published during his Supreme Court nomination hearings.

Practice Note: Privacy policies are tricky things. Clients should be advised to create policies that they can follow. Any updates to a privacy policy, particularly ones that will change the way a user’s information is shared, should be highlighted in bold.

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