Plaintiff Not A Subscriber Under VPPA Just Because He Downloaded An App (but VPPA harms concrete)
Perry v. CNN
Affirmed – CNN allegedly disclosed plaintiff’s viewing habits on the CNN mobile app, along with his personal information (MAC Address), to third-party data analytics company Bango without his consent. The lower court ruled that a MAC Address was not ‘personal’ and plaintiff was not a ‘subscriber’ since he only downloaded a free app and watched free videos.
On appeal, the court found – following its opinion in Ellis v. Cartoon Network – that plaintiff had standing (violation of an individual interest in preventing disclosure sufficient to constitute injury in fact). However, plaintiff failed to allege he was a subscriber. The app was free, as was the content he viewed. Moreover, he did not create an account or ‘register’ with CNN (there was no “ongoing commitment or relationship”).
Since the court established that plaintiff was not a subscriber (sufficient to dismiss VPPA claims), the court need not consider whether a MAC Address was ‘personally identifiable information.’
[11th. Circ; 16-13031 (Orig: N.D. GA; 1:14-cv-02926)]
jbho: So no cover under Spokeo, but at least a clarification on what constitutes a subscriber.
Interesting to note that in the ‘subscriber’ determination, the court found any ‘enhanced’ features in the app were accessible through plaintiff’s cable provider, not necessarily the app itself. Plaintiff’s choice to watch CNN live on the app (after logging in) rather than on his television did not convert him into a CNN ‘subscriber.’ Plaintiff’s cable provider was not named as a defendant.
MAC Address Could Be Personal Information
In re Vizio Privacy Litigation
Dismissed in part (leave to amend) – Vizio allegedly collected and shared private viewing information without consumer knowledge or consent. Plaintiffs alleged, the information shared was personal (e.g., IP Addresses, MAC address, zip codes, product serial numbers), despite Vizio’s characterization of the data as ‘non-personal’ or ‘anonymous.’ Plaintiffs further alleged information about data collection, use, and sharing practices were either not stated, or inadequately stated, depending on when the television was purchased, and any ability to opt-out of tracking was obfuscated in the television settings. Plaintiffs stated had they known about VIZIO’s data collection practices and tracking software, they would not have purchased or would have paid less.
The court found plaintiffs had standing since ECPA and the VPPA both imposed a duty of confidentiality, and protected against harms sufficient to for congress to grant private rights of action, thus confirming the concreteness of plaintiffs’ claimed harms. Similarly, plaintiffs had standing for state law claims for invasion of privacy and intrusion upon seclusion.
On consumer protection claims, the court rejected Vizio’s contention that plaintiffs failed to allege a product defect, and Vizio’s alleged “concealed collection and disclosure” could not be excluded from consideration at this point. Moreover, under the premium price theory, plaintiffs’ allegations they would not have paid conferred statutory standing.
Finally, differences in software of specific makes/models were not sufficient to defeat standing, since general factual allegations at the motion to dismiss phase showed plaintiffs suffered substantially similar injuries irrespective of a particular make/model of TV.
On VPPA Claims, the court further ruled:
• Vizio was plausibly a “video tape service provider” since it not only conveyed video content to consumers, but its services were significantly tailored to serve that purpose (provided seamless access Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video).
• Plaintiffs were plausibly “consumers” since they paid a premium for the Smart TV’s ability to seamlessly deliver video content (and Vizio continued to service TVs by pushing software updates to improve them).
• Data was plausibly “personally identifiable information” since the statutory definition was not exhaustive list, but provided representative samples (the suffix ‘able’ meaning ‘capable of’, and the statutory definition at § 2710(a)(3) being “the term ‘personally identifiable information’ includes …” (emphasis added)). Whether Vizio’s disclosures were “reasonably and foreseeably likely to reveal” what Plaintiffs watched was a factual inquiry “ill-suited for resolution on a motion to dismiss.”
On ECPA Claims, the court ruled that plaintiffs failed to allege any synchronous or near real-time capture of data. However, the court granted plaintiffs leave to amend their claims (and their ‘inscrutable’ graphic).
The court declined to dismiss omission-based fraud and unjust enrichment claims, finding plaintiff sufficiently alleged Vizio failed to disclose material information or embedded material information in obscure settings. It found plaintiffs allegations of affirmative misrepresentations and false advertising lacking, but did grant leave to amend.
The second amended consolidated complaint is due 23mar2017 (Filed 23Mar Doc#136).
[C.D. CA; 8:16-ml-02693]
jbho: The meat of this case really lies in the analysis of what constitutes personal information under the VPPA. The court here favored the 1st Circuit’s opinion in Yershov over the 3rd Circuit’s analysis in Nickeloeon .
“The Court finds Yershov to be a more persuasive interpretation of the VPPA than In re Nickelodeon. First, Yershov focused foremost on the text of the statute, while In re Nickelodeon turned quickly to “the more controversial realm of legislative history.” See Lamie, 540 U.S. at 536. Perhaps, if the statutory language were particularly indecipherable and the legislative history decisively resolved the issue, this approach might be understandable. But In re Nickelodeon recognized that “portions” of the legislative history suggested a broader interpretation of personally identifiable information and the statutory text was “amenable” to such an interpretation. 827 F.3d at 286-86.[The Third Circuit’s legislative history analysis focused on two statements made at a joint hearing that do not obviously concern the proper scope of the term “personally identifiable information” and relate to a prior version of the bill that also covered libraries. In re Nickelodeon Consumer Privacy Litig., 827 F.3d at 285-86. The Supreme Court has repeatedly criticized attempts to divine Congressional intent from “highly generalized, conflicting statements in the legislative history.” Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 185 (1991).] Second, In re Nickelodeon relied heavily on Congress’s decision not to amend the statute substantially in 2002. As the Supreme Court has instructed, this kind of “[p]ost-enactment legislative history (a contradiction in terms) is not a legitimate tool of statutory interpretation.” Bruesewitz v. Wyeth LLC, 562 U.S. 223, 242 (2011). Indeed, Yershov examined the same Congressional inaction and reached the exact opposite conclusion about its proper meaning. See 820 F.3d at 488. Third, under the Third Circuit’s “ordinary person” test it would be highly questionable whether even social security numbers would constitute personally identifiable information because, as the Third Circuit itself recognized, this information “might not be easily matched to . . . persons without consulting another entity, such as a credit reporting agency or government bureau.” In re Nickelodeon Consumer Privacy Litig., 827 F.3d at 283.”
Note also that the complaint uses Vizio’s own data service advertising materials to bolster plaintiff’s case. Something to think about if you’re providing and advertising similar services.
And finally, don’t forget that Vizio recently settled similar claims with the FTC to the tune of $2.2M.
Intangible Harm Is Concrete Injury-In-Fact
Yershov v. Gannett
Motion to dismiss denied – Gannett allegedly disclosed records of video clips viewed though its USA Today app, along with a user’s GPS coordinates and Android device id (Android ID), to third party Adobe, without consent.
On remand, after the appellate court confirmed an Android ID is personal, and determined an app user is a subscriber (consideration provided in the form of personal information), the district court ruled that plaintiff suffered a concrete, albeit ‘intangible’ injury – the invasion his privacy interest in his video viewing history. Violation of this congressionally created statutory right to privacy was sufficient to establish Article III standing.
Furthermore, plaintiff did not have to plausibly allege that Adobe had a ‘profile’ on him, he only needed to plausibly allege that Gannett disclosed personal information to Adobe.
UPDATE: 27Mar2017 – dismissed with prejudice (Yershov), class dismissed without prejudice
Per court filing (Doc #83): “Parties agree that Plaintiff lacks sufficient evidence to support his allegation that Defendant violated the Video Privacy Protection Act by “disclos[ing] his PII—in the form of the title of the videos he watched [on the USA Today App], his unique Android ID, and his GPS coordinates—to third party analytics company [Adobe Systems Inc.]” from which Adobe “identif[ied] Yershov and attribute[d] his video viewing records to an individualized profile of Plaintiff Yershov in its databases.””
Not sure what has motivated this. There doesn’t appear to be a settlement. Let me know if you hear something.
[D. Mass; 1:14-cv-13112 (1st Circ.; 15-1719)]
jbho: something to think about if you are going to stream videos on your sites or through your apps, and share any viewing related information with third parties (even for analytics). Might be safest to get consent – just in case.
If you are interested, a sampling of what I’ve seen as influential cases under the VPPA:
- 2nd (Austin-Spearman v. AMC) – plaintiff not a subscriber (but Cookie ID alone arguably “personal information”)
- [S.D. NY; 1:14-cv-06840]
- 3rd (In re Nickelodeon Consumer Privacy Litigation) – IP address, browser fingerprints, and unique device identifiers are not personal information under the VPPA (however, if technology existed where a user could enter an IP Address in a search engine and get the identity of the person, might be personal)
- [3rd Circ. ; 15-1441 (origin: D. N.J.; 2:12-cv-07829)]
- Precedential opinion (see below)
- 9th (In Re Hulu Privacy Litigation) – Cookie ID alone not “personal information” (but plaintiff arguably a ‘subscriber’, even though user need not register for a Hulu account to watch videos on hulu.com)
- [N.D. CA; 3:11-03764]
- 11th (Ellis v. Cartoon Network) – Device ID’s aren’t personal; plaintiff not a subscriber (user did not sign up or establish an account)
- [11th Circ.; 14-15046 (orig: N.D. GA; 1:14-cv-00484)]
- Reiterated most recently in Perry v. CNN [N.D. GA; 1:14-cv-02926]
To Be Personal, Information Must Readily Permit An Ordinary Person To Know An Actual, Specific Person
(and currently, IP address, browser fingerprints, and unique device identifiers don’t)
In re Nickelodeon Consumer Privacy Litigation
Precedential opinion – Viacom allegedly disclosed personal information to Google, including static identifiers (IP address, browser fingerprints, and unique device identifiers).
The court dismissed the following claims:
- Wiretap Act – although a URL may constitute ‘content’ of a conversation, Google was either a party to the communication or permitted to communicate by Viacom
- CIPA – similar to the Wiretap Act, the California Invasion of Privacy Act does not apply when the alleged interceptor is a party to the communication
- SCA – personal computing devices are not ‘facilities’
- New Jersey Computer Related Offenses Act – plaintiff failed to allege the kind of injury covered under the act (unjust enrichment cannot be used as measure of damages)
- VPPA – IP address, browser fingerprints, and unique device identifiers are not personal information under the VPPA.
- The court found that the VPPA prevents disclosures that, with little or no extra effort, would readily permit an ordinary person to know an actual, specific person’s video watching behavior. The definitions of personal information in other statutes were irrelevant. Congress gave no regulatory body the authority to update the definition of personal information under the VPPA (as it did with laws like COPPA), and chose not to change the definition when it updated the VPPA in 2013 (clarifying consent). Under the current technology* data like IP address, browser fingerprints, and unique device identifiers lack sufficient association to be considered personal.
- The court also ruled only the discloser has liability (not the recipient), dismissing claims against Google.
* the court did say that if technology existed where a user could enter an IP Address in a search engine and get the identity of the person using the computer with that IP Address, a different decision might be reached.
The court reversed dismissal of state Intrusion Upon Seclusion claims. Viacom represented on its website it would not collect personal information about children (stated on its website, “HEY GROWN-UPS: We don’t collect ANY personal information about your kids. Which means we couldn’t share it even if we wanted to!”). Although IP address, browser fingerprints, and unique device identifiers are not personal information under the VPPA, they are under COPPA (pursuant to FTC’s rulemaking authority under COPPA), thus could be considered personal information that parents would not expect Viacom would be collecting. There was no need to address preemption, since COPPA regulates how information may be collected & used, not collection through deceitful practices. That COPPA defined the information in question as personal was enough to create an expectation that such information would not be collected.
UPDATE On 9 Jan 2017, the Supreme Court denied plaintiff’s petition for certiorari (No. 16-346, C.A.F. v. Viacom)
[3rd Circ.; 15-1441 (origin: D. N.J.; 2:12-cv-07829)]
jbho: another interesting twist in how the courts are interpreting the VPPA.
I think a big takeaway here is that the courts may consider the same information to be personal under one law, but not personal under another. And current technological conditions may also play a part. If any (re)identification can be fairly easily performed, then you might have personal information after all?