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Court: Viacom, not Google, on the hook for tracking kids’ behavior online
Under the federal Video Privacy Protection Act, only parties that disclose protected information can be sued, not those that received the information.
In a class-action lawsuit that alleged illegal tracking of kids’ web browsing and video-viewing habits, Google was released from the action by the US Third Circuit Court of Appeals but Viacom, owner of Nickelodeon and associated websites, was not.
Plaintiffs in the case were kids under 13 (and their families). The plaintiffs alleged that defendants, Viacom and Google, collected information about their viewing and browsing behavior on Viacom’s websites — in violation of state privacy laws and the the federal Video Privacy Protection Act.
The latter, passed in 1988 in response to publication of then US Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental history by the Washington Post, makes illegal any “disclosure of personally identifying information relating to viewers’ consumption of video-related services.”
On its child-oriented websites, including Nick.com, Viacom promised that it would not collect kids’ personal information: “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!” In fact, cookies were used to collect and convey the kids’ browsing and video-watching behavior and Google received that data for the purpose of ad-serving and targeting.
Simplifying the claims and reasoning in the opinion below, the Third Circuit held that plaintiffs couldn’t sue Google “because the Act permits the plaintiffs to sue only entities that disclose protected information, not parties, such as Google, alleged to be mere recipients of it.” Because Viacom collected and disclosed the information (to Google) it was subject to liability for the violation of the federal statute and potentially some state privacy laws.