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Fine print, Protecting yourself

Your cheatin’ card will make you grieve: Actress sues for right to lie about age

Daniel Ray

 

Somewhere in Texas, an anonymous actress has filed a federal lawsuit against a website over what traditionally has been an unwritten right of celebrities — to lie about their ages.

Her betrayer: her credit card, and a website that insists it’s OK for it to use the card’s data to investigate her and find her real age.

I love the story, in part because I know a bit about celebrity puffery and media complicity in it. For a few years, I participated in the process. So permit me a digression.

I started my career with a decade as a hard-news reporter and editor at the Miami Herald, and now I am a Serious Personal Finance Journalist here at CreditCards.com. But in between, I had another, fluffier post: junior editor at a startup country music magazine.

It was a blast. It was during the height of the country music boom of the ’90s. Boots were scooting. And because we were well-financed, we quickly became part of the star-making machinery behind the popular song — which meant young up-and-comers courted our magazine’s attention.

A quick story from the day: One afternoon, a young songwriter from East Tennessee, trying to break in as a performer, pulled up in his manager’s station wagon. He brought his guitar into our office, sat on the corner of one of our eight faux-wood desks and sang a couple songs from his new album. I don’t think we wrote about his visit — after all, the currency in our realm was stardom, and he had none — but we all thought that Kenny Chesney kid had a future.

The magazine was Country Weekly, and we were well-financed because it was part of a family of publications owned by American Media, whose flagship publication is the National Enquirer.

It was celebrity coverage, which meant your stories were subject to be negotiated. A typical negotiation between editor and publicist would go something like this: “If you let us do the photo shoot in Star X’s house, we won’t say a thing about that nasty little episode that’s been in the press lately, but we will use all the quotes you can give us about his new album.”

A singer’s age, especially a female singer’s age after she’d been on the scene a few years, either was discreetly omitted or was whatever she said it was. It was part of the deal: The celebrity gives access, the celebrity press presents you as you wish to be presented.

So that brings us to the lawsuit (courtesy of Eonline), filed under the name “Jane Doe” in October in U.S. District Court in Seattle. She’s suing Internet Movie Database, aka IMDb.com, the popular movie information service, and its parent corporation, Amazon.com.

She reveals little about herself except that she is Asian, lives in Texas and has adopted a stage name because her given name “is extremely difficult for Americans to spell and pronounce.” She alleges that when she signed up for the IMDbPro service, which allows those in the industry to post their own information, she gave up her credit card information, containing her true name and address.

And horror of horrors, she alleges, the company then used that information to search public records to find her true age.

She says in her lawsuit:

“Shortly after subscribing to IMDbPro, Plaintiff noticed that her legal date of birth had been added to her public acting profile in the Internet Movie Database, revealing to the public that Plaintiff is many years older than she looks. In the entertainment industry, youth is king. If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the Plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside,’ therefore, casting directors, producers, directors, agents/managers, etc. do not give her the same opportunities, regardless of her appearance or talent.”

She says she asked the company to delete her age, and it refused. Her suit asks for compensatory damages of more than $75,000 and punitive damages of more than $1 million.

Last week, Amazon/IMDb fired back at 40ish “Jane” — and this is the part that should give credit card holders pause.

The company says the case should be dismissed.

On the one hand, Amazon wrapped itself in nobility:

“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.”

On the other, it defended its right to do what it likes with your information, because of the language in its terms and conditions policy. Amazon’s lawyers say:

“Even if Plaintiff’s allegations that Defendants used her credit card information to obtain her date of birth were true (which they are not), they fail because Plaintiff provided this information to IMDb.com voluntarily in exchange for the benefits of an IMDbPro subscription and, in doing so, she consented to the Subscriber Agreement and Privacy Policy.

… Thus, even if IMDb.com used Plaintiff’s name, address or ZIP code from her credit card subscription to locate her birth date, such use is consistent with the Subscriber Agreement and Privacy Policy.”

Having read the agreement and policy, I find its language murky and easily interpreted to allow IMDb to do whatever it likes with your data, including using it as a launching point for personal investigation, and I think that’s wrong.

Two actors’ guilds, the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, have condemned IMDb’s revealing actors’ ages.

In this case, I agree. This is Jane Doe’s livelihood, as well as a longstanding tradition in the gauzy world of celebrity press. I expect, and will fight for, precise and meticulously accurate information on things that matter — such as personal finance. But this? Pah. If Jane wants to subtract a few years, or if Tom Cruise wants to stand on a box, I’m not sending in the I-Team.

And for the rest of us, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to click on that “agree to terms and conditions” check-box when using a credit card online.

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