An actress who sued IMDb.com after the site posted her birthdate — and then refused to remove it at her request — can go forward with a trial in the case.r
U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman said that actress Junie Hoang’s claim that IMDb.com breached privacy and subscriber agreements in using information that she provided when subscribing to IMDbPro was enough in dispute to warrant a trial. But Pechman rejected Hoang’s claim that IMDb violated the Consumer Protection Act, and also that IMDb parent Amazon.com should also be held liable.
The case is a bit convoluted, even as the Screen Actors Guild and other orgs that have argued that thespians, and actresses in particular, face age discrimination that is abetted by the post of birthdates on the online database.
Hoang, whose real name is Huong Hoang, first signed up for IMDb in 2001, but left her age blank. In 2004, she used a friend’s account to submit a 1978 date of birth, even though she was actually born in 1971. In 2007, she decided that she wanted the false birth date to be removed, and repeatedly contacted the database, asking that it be taken off her page. Yet even after she sent them documents, including a fake Texas ID, showing that the birth date was wrong, they did not remove the 1978 date from her profile.
In 2008, she sent IMDb an e-mail asking them to please “go back to your files and see if you have any documentation, verification or identification that my birthdate is in 1978.” She also said, “If you do, please e-mail it to me because I’m curious to see what you’re going off of.” IMDb interpreted this to mean “an invitation to begin investigating,” Pechman noted, and a customer service manager searched through a customer database where Hoang’s legal name she gave when subscribing to IMDbPro. From there, the customer service manager searched through a public records database to find her correct birth date, and published it online.
Pechman wrote that Hoang’s use of a fake ID did not negate her claim of breach of contract — as IMDb cited the doctrine of “unclean hands.” “In this case, [Hoang's] unclean hands played no part in acquiring the right she asserts — that IMDb promised to safeguard subscriber information. …Plaintiff acquired that right the same way every subscriber did — simply by subscribing.”
Nevertheless, Pechman wrote that although Hoang “never asked IMDb to use her credit card information to initiate a new search, but she did ask IMDb to search its files, knowing all the while that she herself had provided the false 1978 date, and that IMDb therefore would not find the ‘verification’ she requested.”
The judge also said that she could pursue damages for direct losses as well as for the impact on her career, but could not recover damages for emotional distress or for “non-career” losses, like for the value of her private information.
In a statement, Hoang said, “I am obviously very gratified by the court’s decision to allow my case to go to trial. What’s at stake here involves far more than just my own career. Anyone who values their privacy and has ever given credit card information to an online company like IMDb or Amazon.com should be concerned about the outcome. We entrust companies like these with ever-growing mountains of data about ourselves and when they violate that trust, they must be held to account.”
The trial is scheduled to start on April 8 in a federal court in Seattle.