By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
The curtain has closed on Huong Hoang’s real-life legal drama with the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb — at least for now. The actress, who uses the stage name “Junie Hoang,” sued the company after it published her birth date on her IMDb profile. Hoang had initially posted a false birth date in order to appear younger, but later wanted her age removed. After making multiple requests for IMDb to delete her age, the website, which has a policy of never removing information and only correcting inaccuracies, responded by posting Hoang’s true birth date, to her dismay.
IMDb argued that it did not breach the subscriber agreement, citing a section in the contract that advises customers that IMDb may use their personal information “for such purposes as responding to your requests.” At trial, the company introduced an exhibit containing a 2008 e-mail wherein Hoang wrote to IMDb, “Please go back on your files and see if you have any documentation, verification, or identification that my birthdate is 1978.” The year 1978 was the false birth year that Hoang originally posted, but later wanted removed. Evidence also showed that Hoang used a series of deceptive tactics such as sending a copy of a fake Texas ID card to persuade the company to remove her fake age. The company argued that Hoang’s demands constituted permission for the company to investigate. It added that regardless, Hoang failed to prove that she suffered damages because she failed to supply sufficient evidence of lost income.
IMDb further argued that it had the First Amendment right to publish true and accurate public information on its website, especially when the information involves a person who holds herself out as a public figure. Brian Rowe, a privacy law professor at Seattle University School of Law, stated that even though Hoang’s case concerned a breach of contract claim, this First Amendment argument was one of IMDb’s strongest.
“Public and private figures have different amounts of privacy protection in the U.S.,” Rowe explained. “Celebrities tend to have lower expectations of privacy than individuals. There’s a huge public interest in finding out information about those people.”
Rowe added, “The thing that’s so troubling about this, though, is that with the Internet and social media, the threshold to be considered a public figure seems like it’s extremely low.”
This means that even though Hoang may be what some describe as a B-movie actress, having appeared in movies such as “Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver” and “Hoodrats 2: Hoodrat Warriors,” by virtue of holding herself out as a public figure, her privacy protection under the law is likely reduced.
On April 11, following the two-day trial, a federal jury in Seattle concluded that Hoang failed to prove her breach of contract claim against IMDb. It returned a verdict in the company’s favor.
In a statement released to Northwest Asian Weekly by her agent, Hoang stated, “I am obviously disappointed by the verdict. The issues in this case should concern anyone who values their privacy and has ever given credit card information to a company like IMDb or Amazon.com.”
Amazon is IMDb’s parent company, but the judge dismissed it as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Hoang added, “We entrust these companies with ever-growing mountains of data about ourselves and when they violate that trust, they should be held accountable.”
According to her agent, Hoang has not yet decided whether she will appeal the decision.
IMDb’s attorneys did not immediately respond to Northwest Asian Weekly’s requests for comment. A company spokesperson said that the company has a long-standing policy of not discussing active litigation.
Regardless of the outcome, the case has reinvigorated discussions about privacy issues in the Internet age.
Actress Nadine Nagamatsu, who studied and worked on films, commercials, and print advertising New York, is currently living and working on various films in the Seattle area. Like Hoang, she is a IMDbPro subscriber. Even though she had no involvement with Hoang’s case, Nagamatsu said that she can relate to Hoang’s plight.
“I absolutely sympathize with her,” said Nagamatsu. “I think that it’s hard enough for an actor trying to find work, let alone figuring out how to market yourself properly,” she said.
Nagamatsu believes IMDb should not have posted Hoang’s true birth date without notifying her and getting her explicit consent.
“When you’re an actor, who is just trying to work day to day, paycheck to paycheck, that kind of thing could hurt a lot. That could be a matter of eating one month and not eating the next month,” said Nagamatsu.
“When I sign up for any kind of casting or marketing websites, I’d expect my privacy to be kept. And if you’re paying for an IMDbPro account, it should reflect whatever you want it to be. The only reason I would see IMDb needing to interfere is in the case of somebody putting incorrect information that would create a liability for another company, such as saying they worked on a project that they didn’t. I don’t see why they couldn’t have just made that easy change for [Hoang] upon request,” said Nagamatsu.
Rowe hopes that Hoang’s case reminds Internet users about the importance of understanding the contractual relationships they enter online.
“These contracts are designed by the company. They’re put forth in a take-it or leave-it fashion,” he said. “These are often unfair to end users and take away rights and cover things that they would never consider.”
Rowe also said that the outcome of the case demonstrates a need to reform terms of service and privacy policies. “These contracts need to be fair and understandable by all parties,” he said.
“I hope individuals will look more closely at privacy laws and see what needs to be put in place for privacy protections for individuals,” he said. (end)
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