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When an anonymous actress this week sued iMDb for revealing her age, she claimed the popular Hollywood data service violated her privacy by accessing personal information she provided when signing up for the website’s premium service.
Her claims against Amazon, the site’s owner, are serious. There’s also another issue in this case: Will she be able to remain anonymous?
The woman carefully filed her lawsuit as a “Jane Doe.” But Amazon might make a motion in Washington federal court that attempts to force her to come forward publicly. Over the years, there have been many attempts by anonymous plaintiffs to keep their identities sealed, and judges often won’t allow it.
The Ninth Circuit, where this case was brought, has established guidelines over whether plaintiffs can remain anonymous. In a 2000 case, a panel of circuit judges had to figure out whether several foreign garment workers could remain anonymous in a lawsuit claiming unfair labor conditions. The judges had to decide whether the plaintiffs had “an objectively reasonable fear of extraordinarily severe retaliation” and described the weighing factors as such:
“In this circuit, we allow parties to use pseudonyms in the “unusual case” when nondisclosure of the party’s identity1068 is necessary … to protect a person from harassment, injury, ridicule or personal embarrassment….
a party may preserve his or her anonymity in judicial proceedings in special circumstances when the party’s need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to the opposing party and the public’s interest in knowing the party’s identity.”
To put pressure on the actress in this case, Amazon could file a motion that argues that the woman’s continued anonymity will be prejudicial. The company will want the plaintiff to prove that the publication of her age was detrimental to her career, and the only way to do that, they might argue, is by doing fact-finding about her identity and career.
Attorney Eric Turkewitz, who says he has brought lawsuits on behalf of “Jane Does” in the past, believes Amazon is likely going to get what it wants.
“The smart money from my corner says that, if Amazon makes the motion, the court will not allow the case to proceed in this fashion,” says Turkewitz. The lawyer adds that if this happens, “She will be forced to disclose her identity or drop the matter.”
Will this woman, who has already incited a guessing game on Gawker, be brave enough to continue?
Surely, there will be many in Hollywood rooting for her.
Not many topics are more sensitive in the industry than age. Hollywood has a history of getting into trouble for age discrimination. For example, a class action brought by 165 television writers that lasted ten years settled for $70 million in early 2010.
IMDb, in particular, has been subject to much griping over the company’s decision to keep publishing ages. Despite many attempts by lawyers to get their clients’ ages off of the site, the service has refused to budge. In fact, according to our sources, the company even refuses to make changes when errors are pointed out. Lots of people lie about their age, or so the company figures.
Which means that the company likely will only make changes if there’s pressure — the WGA reportedly tried to spearhead an unsuccessful movement last year — or if the company is subject to an averse court ruling.
The anonymous actress will now give it a go, but she isn’t the first to mount a legal challenge.
Eriko Tamura, a popular actress in Japan before she came to the U.S. and starred in the NBC drama Heroes, filed her own lawsuit against iMDb four years ago. She claimed in her complaint that the company invaded her privacy by publishing her age and revealing her full given name. She claimed the disclosure could be used by overzealous fans to threaten her and her family, and said the fear about this caused her extreme emotional distress and made her cancel a number of public appearances.
She wanted an injunction and never got it. The case privately settled and Tamura’s age is still listed on her iMDb profile. Her full given name appears to have been taken down, however.
The latest lawsuit raises some new legal questions, including contractual disclosures made by iMDb to customers as well as potential use of private credit card information in the publishing realm.
Eric Goldman, a tech lawyer who broke news about this lawsuit on his Twitter feed, says the case could be significant, but it’s too early to judge the actress’ likelihood of success.
“We’ll have a better sense of the situation after we see IMDb’s response,” says Goldman. “I do think this lawsuit differs from many other privacy lawsuits because she actually alleged some financial harm from the purportedly unauthorized disclosure of her birthdate…No matter how it turns out, the case is a good reminder to Internet companies that they need to be careful about reidentifying their users. Making public seemingly innocuous information, like a birthdate of a quasi-celebrity, could be a significant violation of their users’ privacy expectations.”
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