It was a legal battle between an obscure indie actress and one of the world’s most powerful Internet companies, and, well, guess who won?
IMDb, the online movie portal owned by Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN), landed a victory on Thursday after a Seattle jury found that it committed no wrongdoing in publishing the age of actress Huong Hoang, the Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner reported.
Hoang, known professionally as Junie Hoang, sued IMDb and Amazon in 2011, claiming that she was losing work by having her age displayed on the massively popular website. At 41, the actress is still struggling in the industry, having appeared mostly in low-budget fare such as “Fifth Ward,” “A Gang Land Love Story” and “Ungirlfriendable.” Although from photos, she appears far younger than her age, her IMDb profile page lists her birthday as July 16, 1971.
Hoang said the website obtained her real age by accessing her credit-card information after she signed up for its premium service, IMDb Pro. She had the support of SAG-AFTRA, which argued that the website’s age-publishing policy is detrimental to the livelihoods of actors, who essentially trade in illusions and who rely on the perception that they can play a certain type.
“An actor’s actual age is irrelevant to casting,” the union said in a statement. “What matters is the age range that an actor can portray. For the entire history of professional acting, this has been true but that reality has been upended by the development of IMDb as an industry standard used in casting offices across America.”
In the lawsuit, however, Amazon and IMDb maintained that IMDb simply “exercised its First Amendment right to publish truthful and accurate information.” And judging from the jury’s decision, it had the stronger argument. Indeed, had it been forced to remove Hoang’s birth date and compensate her for loss of acting jobs (she initially sought $1 million in damages), it’s easy to see how such a ruling could have unforeseen implications for Web culture. For instance, as a plaintiff at the center of a landmark lawsuit, Hoang is now a public figure. As such, she has a Wikipedia page, which also includes her date of birth. Would a ruling against IMDb give Hoang the right to go after Wikimedia Foundation?
At the same time, it’s unclear why IMDb wouldn't, upon request, remove birth dates as a simple courtesy to the very people who pay for its subscription services. The website is notoriously unresponsive to requests and slow to make changes to erroneous information, and yet its checks and balances are few -- anyone can upload a biography or add information.
That IMDb’s primary source of revenue is advertising -- not IMDb Pro -- may indicate why it places more value on providing information than on keeping its paying customers happy, but it also reinforces the increasingly “because we can” ethos of the digital world. Whether it’s a small-town newspaper publishing information about gun permits or an offended SWSX attendee publicly shaming a couple of allegedly sexist jokesters on Twitter, the Internet is becoming the inevitable destination for virtually every last piece of information about us, whether we like it or not.
And judging by reactions to IMDb’s victory over Hoang, most of us don’t seem to mind. The actress seems to have found few supporters outside of the acting community, with numerous Twitter users posting snarky comments about the “old maid” actress who had the gall to expect a little privacy.
Meanwhile, writing on the website, the Gloss, on Friday, Jennifer Wright argued that the real culprit isn't IMDb but an ageist Hollywood culture that shames women into lying about their age, no matter how young they might look.
“[T]he problem is women like you -- who are 41 but look 25 -- not proudly saying that you are 41,” Wright wrote. “If only people that look haggard at 41 admit their age, then stupid Hollywood producers will think it’s a terrible age.”