Casual website visitor who watched videos was not protected under the Video Privacy Protection Act

A recent federal court decision from the Southern District of New York sheds light on what is required to be considered a “consumer” who is protected under the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). The court held that a website visitor who merely visited a website once in awhile to watch videos — without establishing a more “deliberate and durable” affiliation with the website — was not a “subscriber” to the website’s services and thus the VPPA did not prohibit the alleged disclosure of information about the website visitor’s viewing habits.

Defendant was a television network that maintains a website offering video clips and episodes of many of its television shows. The website also incorporated Facebook’s software development kit which, among other things, let visitors log into websites using their Facebook credentials. This mechanism relied on cookies. If a person had chosen to remain logged into Facebook by checking the “keep me logged in” button on Facebook’s homepage, the relevant cookie would continue to operate, regardless of what the user did with the web browser. Plaintiff alleged that this mechanism caused AMC to transmit information to Facebook about the video clips she watched on the AMC site.

Plaintiff sued under the VPPA. Defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiff lacked standing under the statute and that she was not a protected “consumer” as required by the statute.

The court found that plaintiff had standing. It rejected defendant’s argument that a VPPA plaintiff must allege some injury in addition to asserting that defendant had violated the statute. “It is true . . . that Congress cannot erase Article III’s standing requirements by statutorily granting the right to sue to a plaintiff who would not otherwise have standing.” But Congress “can broaden the injuries that can support constitutional standing.”

The court next looked to whether plaintiff was a “consumer” protected under the statute. The VPPA defines the term “consumer” to include “any renter, purchaser, or subscriber of goods or services from a video tape service provider.” Absent any assertion that plaintiff was a renter or purchaser of AMC’s goods, the parties and the court focused on whether she was a “subscriber” (a term not defined in the statute).

Because plaintiff’s allegations failed to establish a relationship with defendant sufficient to characterize her as a subscribers of defendant’s goods or services, the court dismissed the VPPA claim with leave to amend. It observed: “Conventionally, ‘subscription’ entails an exchange between subscriber and provider whereby the subscriber imparts money and/or personal information in order to receive a future and recurrent benefit, whether that benefit comprises, for instance, periodical magazines, club membership, cable services, or email updates.” In this case, “[s]uch casual consumption of web content, without any attempt to affiliate with or connect to the provider, exhibit[ed] none of the critical characteristics of ‘subscription’ and therefore [did] not suffice to render [plaintiff] a subscriber of [defendant’s] services.”

Austin-Spearman v. AMC Network Entertainment LLC, 2015 WL 1539052 (S.D.N.Y. April 7, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.