Blockbuster sued over role in Facebook's Beacon ad program

A Texas woman files a complaint citing the Videotape Privacy Protection Act from the 1980s, after a video store revealed the rental history of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

As if troubled movie rental company Blockbuster didn't have enough to deal with already : an angry Facebook user has taken issue with its participation in the social network's controversial Beacon advertising program, and is pursuing legal action.

Cathryn Elaine Harris, a Texas resident, filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for eastern Texas on April 9, claiming that it's a violation of a federal statute for Blockbuster to participate in Beacon, which shares rental history on Facebook members' "news feeds" unless they manually opt out . She is seeking class-action status, hoping to eventually net $2,500 for each infringement.

Don't want anyone to know you rented this cinematic gem? One lawsuit in Texas says it feels your pain. New Line Cinema

Facebook is not included in the lawsuit.

In the suit, Harris claims that Blockbuster's sharing of her movie rental history through Beacon is in direct conflict with the Videotape Privacy Protection Act. The law was passed during the viciously contested nomination of judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, in the midst of which writer Michael Dolan went to a video store that Bork frequented and obtained a list of 146 videotapes his family had checked out.

Then Dolan reported on the not particularly scandalous list--no Debbie Does Dallas to be found--in an article in the Washington, D.C.-area City Paper. An analog-age privacy debate ensued, and the VPPA was passed in 1988.

Now, the Bork-era law has taken on a digital dimension: Harris vs. Blockbuster, addressing Facebook's "social advertising" program. The social network unveiled the Beacon ads in November, drawing criticism from activist groups like MoveOn.org for privacy violations until it modified the interface to allow for more user control.

A Blockbuster representative told MediaPost that adequate privacy protections are in place and that Blockbuster's legal team will "vigorously defend the company in this litigation."

Correction, Sept. 23, 2009: Michael Dolan has clarified that while he obtained and reported on Robert Bork's household's video rental history, he did not actually publish the list.

About the author

Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.

 

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