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Blockbuster sued over Facebook Beacon information sharing

It's accused of violating customer privacy by sharing info about movie rentals

April 18, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A Texas woman has filed a class-action lawsuit against Blockbuster Inc. over the video rental company's participation in Facebook's Beacon program.

The lawsuit, filed last week by Dallas County resident Cathryn Elaine Harris, accuses Blockbuster of breaking the provisions of the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1998. The rarely invoked act basically prohibits movie rental companies such as Blockbuster from disclosing to other parties any personally identifiable rental records of their customers -- unless the customer consents to the practice in writing.

In her lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Harris alleged that Blockbuster violated the provisions of this law when it shared her video tape rental and sales records with Facebook without seeking or getting her permission. The lawsuit charges Blockbuster with knowingly sharing this information and continuing to share it with a third party.

"Defendant clearly knows that plaintiffs' and class members' personally identifiable information was and currently still is being distributed to Facebook because defendant's Web site pop-up screen tells plaintiffs and class members that their information is being sent to Facebook every time plaintiffs and class members rent, purchase or add a movie to their queue," the complaint said. The suit is seeking damages of $2,500 for each instance in which Blockbuster may have disclosed customer information to Facebook under the Beacon program.

In a statement sent via email, Blockbuster denied the allegations in the case. "Our alliance with Facebook included numerous levels of privacy protection built in for our online subscribers. While we cannot discuss the specifics of this lawsuit, we intend to vigorously defend the Company in this litigation," the company said.

The lawsuit is not entirely unexpected. Last December, at the height of the Facebook Beacon controversy, James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School had raised the possibility of Blockbuster being sued over its participation in the program.

Facebook's Beacon ad service was released in early November 2007 as a part of the Facebook Ads platform. It is designed to track the activities of Facebook users on participating Web sites and to report those activities to the users' Facebook friends unless specifically told not to do so. The idea was to give participating online companies a way to monitor the activities of Facebook users on their Web sites and to use that information to then deliver targeted messages to Facebook friends. Facebook made it in an opt-in feature after an outcry over the service soon after it was launched.

Blockbuster was one of 44 companies that signed up as a participating member when the service launched.

Grimmelmann said at the time that the mere fact that Blockbuster passed on movie choice information about its customers to Facebook constituted a violation of the law -- regardless of whether Facebook then later shared that information with others or not.

The video protection law invoked in this case was passed after Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's video rental records were published in a newspaper. According to a description of the law on the Electronic Privacy Information Center Web site, the law "stands as one of the strongest protections of consumer privacy against a specific form of data collection."

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.



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