November 14, 2011

Should an Actress be Suing IMDB Because She Doesn't Want Her Age Posted?

gretagarbarosurveilancephoto.pngBrad McCarty of The Next Web thinks the IMDb: Age-publishing lawsuit is “a frivolous abuse” and should be dropped.

Reading his piece, I can see that on first glance, it sounds silly. An actress anonymously sues the Amazon-owned IMDB folks because they won't remove her birthdate, claiming that it will adversely affect her career. And now, IMBD has asked the judge to only allow the lawsuit to move forward if her name is made public:

"Truth and justice are philosophical pillars of this Court. The perpetuation of fraud, even for an actor's career, is inconsistent with these principals. Plaintiff's attempt to manipulate the federal court system so she can censor iMDb's display of her birth date and pretend to the world that she is not 40 years old is selfish, contrary to the public interest and a frivolous abuse of this Court's resources."

But this argument between IMDB and the actress points to a much bigger issue, and it's not the one about IMDB making its living trading on other's data, whether from Hollywood or the users who add to the IMDB system for free, which I would understand is a fairly selfish undertaking by IMDB.

Why should IMDB be able to operate "selfishly" by publishing people's personal data, outside their discretion, and the actress in question not be able to "selfishly" make a living by trading in her looks for salary? I would say IMDB is pretty hypocritical here. And do they really think the Judge, the public, or the Hollywood set they make money from, are that stupid that we wouldn't understand that IMDB is selfish too?

I understand from reading the Hollywood Reporter article that the IMDB believes she may be the same actress that years ago tried to change her birthday, submitted by a previous agent to IMDB. Since IMDB believes this is an issue of fraud (they have no proof), they now want the identity of the actress made public. But since the old information isn't part of the case, does it really matter? Yes, I get that actresses have lied about their ages for a long time, but is it really "in the public interest" to out this woman? It's definitely in her economic interest not to out her, so i just think Amazon-IMDB are being nasty and frankly it seems frivolous of them to try to out her.

But this is really beside the point.

The Larger Issue

I believe people should be able to choose what personal information is shown about them on websites.. especially data that isn't or wasn't before the past 10 years, public. It's easy to dismiss this as vanity or frivolous.. but as more and more personal data is out there, and as people lose control of it.. it points to a much larger issue: how do individuals control information about them that doesn't really need to be public?

I can see that by having her age obscured, the people who hire her would just think of her age based upon appearance.. which is actually for an actress or actor, probably a good measure. Giving the specific age will plant that in producer's and public's heads. So I can see her point.

Rather than get into a discussion of harms and "how bad is it" about one or another data breaches, I think the real question is:

What kind of society do we want to have, where everyone's data is public and out of their control? What does it do to us, to devolve into a totalitarian model where everyone is afraid because frankly, everyone has something to hide? Or maybe their friends do.

Right now, life and health insurance companies are telling the press and their investors that they are screening people in Facebook. And it's not just you under scrutiny. It's your friends. This was covered extensively in the Wall Street Journal "what they know" series a year ago. There are also finance companies that are telling users to "unfriend" anyone they are connected to in Facebook with bad credit... because when you are reviewed, friends with bad credit will reflect on you.

This issue of personal data and control is much larger than an actress and her age being displayed without her consent.

It's about how we allow others to show information about us, verses having control of it ourselves. I think for a civil and democratic society to work, we can't leave that up to companies with no oversight and a big profit motive, but instead need to think about giving the individual ultimate control over certain types of personal data.

So while the actress may be vain, may be trying to gloss over her age, or may just be reflecting the economic realities of her profession, which i do think are real, and we may poo-poo this as silly, this lawsuit reflects the much greater tension about personal data and control and actually could be a really interesting test case, given that we don't have much privacy law in the US.

Posted by Mary Hodder at November 14, 2011 08:08 AM | TrackBack
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