Court tosses privacy suit aimed at Hulu

The video streaming service Hulu has prevailed against a legal challenge claiming that it violated its users' privacy by sharing what they watched on Facebook.

A federal judge ruled this week that the company did not “knowingly” send information to Facebook to pair up with users’ profiles and distribute online.

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As a result, Magistrate Court Judge Laurel Beeler tossed out the proposed class action lawsuit, settling a nearly four-year litigation battle that could have broad ripple effects for online privacy.

Hulu users trying to sue the company had taken issue with the fact that their Facebook accounts would update without their knowledge every time they clicked a “Like” button next to a Hulu video. That happened because cookies implanted by Facebook on their Web browsers would link those viewers with their Facebook accounts, so long as they had logged into the social network in the previous four weeks.

The challengers said that was a violation of the federal Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which prevents video companies from sharing “personally identifiable information” about what they watched with an outside party. The law, which dates back to 1988, was written after The Washington Post reported on videos rented by then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Robert Bork.

“This case is different,” Judge Beeler determined.

In the Hulu case, information from the cookie connecting a Hulu viewer with their Facebook account was sent separately from the Web address of the video.

“[T]here is no evidence that Hulu knew that Facebook might combine a Facebook user‘s identity (contained in the c_user cookie) with the watch-page address to yield ‘personally identifiable information’ under the VPPA,” Beeler ruled.

“There is consequently no proof that Hulu knowingly disclosed any user ‘as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services,’ ” as the law forbids, she added.

Beeler acknowledged that it would be natural to assume that information is constantly shared and connected between Internet companies.

“But a jury cannot be allowed to pass on liability based on broad hand waves toward what we all know, what we all expect about how our personal information moves around, and how things generally work in the age of the Internet,” she wrote.

The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, meaning another case cannot be brought on the same claim.