Viacom Claims It Doesn’t Collect Personal Information from Children

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jan 10, 2017

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Child using iPadThe Hollywood Reporter reports that Viacom is seeking summary judgement in a lawsuit claiming that it collected personal information from children on the Nick.com website, in violation of its promise to parents.

As earlier reported, Viacom and Google were sued by a group of parents on behalf of children under 13 who visited Nick.com.

The parents claimed that Google and Viacom violated the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which prohibits the knowing and non-consensual disclosure of “personally identifiable information” (PII) like names and email addresses.

According to the parents’ complaint, the case is about Google’s and Viacom’s  

misuse of Internet technologies (“cookies”) to disclose, compile, store, and exploit the video viewing histories and Internet communications of children throughout the United States. With neither the knowledge nor the consent of their parents, the Defendants accessed, stored and utilized unique and specific electronic identifying information and content about each of these children for commercial purposes.

Cookies

As explained in the complaint,  

Computer programmers … developed technologies commonly referred to as Internet “cookies,” which are small text files that web servers can place on a person’s computing device when that person’s web browser interacts with the website host server.

Cookies can perform different functions; and some cookies were eventually designed to track and record an individual’s activity on websites across the Internet.

In 2015, a New Jersey federal judge rejected the $5 million claim.

However, in June a federal appeals court revived the case, ruling that Viacom may have committed the tort of “intrusion upon seclusion.”

The claim is based on the following language on the Nick.com 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!

The plaintiffs claimed that Viacom was, in fact, collecting personal information about children and allowing Google to place ads which resulted in cookies on the children’s computers.

According to the judge who revived the case,

In our view, the wrong at the heart of the plaintiffs’ intrusion claim is not that Viacom and Google collected children’s personal information, or even that they disclosed it. Rather, it is that Viacom created an expectation of privacy on its websites and then obtained the plaintiffs’ personal information under false pretenses.

Summary Judgement

In its latest court filing, Viacom is asking the court to find that it doesn’t collect personal information from those who create profiles on the Nick.com website.

According to Viacom’s motion,

Viacom spoke truthfully to parents about its privacy practices. … Viacom did not collect any “personal information” that could be used to identify users in the real world.

Viacom says it may collect birth dates, gender, IP addresses, and device identifiers for the user’s computer, but it doesn’t collect real names, street addresses, telephone numbers, or “other identifying details that allow[] it to detect a child’s real-world identity.”

Takeaway

It seems unlikely that the type of anonymized information collected by Viacom could be considered PII, or that the use of cookies could be considered an invasion of privacy. But if a court rules for the plaintiffs in this case, that could lead to shockwaves (and lawsuits) throughout the world of online commerce, and millions of businesses could be forced to change the way they do business.

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