Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Hollywood Obsession with Age Reveals Deeper Privacy Issue

For the past few months, there's been a mildly interesting lawsuit buzzing around the entertainment industry that looked like it might go away, but now may play out. Late last year, an actress anonymously filed suit against the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and parent company Amazon for revealing her actual birth date on the site. She alleged that now that producers knew her real age, she'd be excluded from certain roles, her career was damaged, and she wanted retribution or remuneration. (A million dollars to be exact.)

It made some headlines because the lawsuit was filed anonymously which led to speculation about who the actress might be. Could it be that Julianne Moore is in her 60s? Demi Moore is actually 71? Maybe it worked the other way? Maybe Dame Judy Dench is really only 32 and therefore obviously ill-suited to play the older matriarchal roles she has been?

If you put aside the potential star power and scandalous nature of the lawsuit, it does raise interesting privacy issues. The lawsuit alleges that IMDB looked at purchases the actress made on Amazon and pulled her age out of her credit card information. They then updated her IMDB profile with her exact birthday. Sneaky stuff. Not hacking into the mobile phone voicemail of a murder victim sneaky, but it seems pretty clearly an invasion of privacy.

"But what about the Amazon user agreement the actress agreed to, like everyone else, without reading," asks the unsympathetic Corporations Are People Too person?

Well, I'm no attorney, but I am a person, and an Amazon and IMDB Pro user. I think it's reasonable to assume Amazon will collect information on the products I look at and purchase, sell that information to a third party, who is then free to fill my Facebook page and email with ads for products that they've extrapolated I will want. (Although now that I think about it, I've never looked at Erection Difficulty for Dummies, so maybe they need to double-check their algorithm.)

Anyway, the lawsuit sounded interesting. But a Federal judge decided the lawsuit couldn't go forward with the plaintiff being anonymous. She dismissed it.

Then came the headline on MSN: "Actress Who Sued IMDB Reveals Name." Oh, excitement! The lawsuit was back on and we were going to learn the actual age of a real Hollywood superstar, one of those ageless beauties like Angelina, Jennifer, or one of the many Kates I can't keep straight. The trial would feature Hollywood elite versus internet wunderkinds. Producers and directors would testify about their views on age; studio execs would be called to task for ageist views when it came to woman, and actors and actresses would put on performances – breaking down on the stand to drive home the unfairness of it all. Someone might even develop a ribbon in time for the Oscars!

I clicked the link and saw a picture of an Asian woman I didn't recognize right away. Wait is that Ming Na from "ER"? Is it Lauren Tom from "Friends"? Nope. It's Huong Hoang.


Oh, perhaps you know her by her screen name. Junie Hoang.

Drawing a blank. What's she been in?

Well, let's see there was "Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust." (Trailer below!) She was also in the sequel, "Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver." (Different role, by the way.) She played Zombie Postwoman in "Z: A Zombie Musical," and if I'm not mistaken, Kristin Chenoweth is slated to reprise that role when the show comes to Broadway in the 2013 season.

Now yes, these titles are funny, and I'm sure the movies are horrendous, but Ms. Hoang actually has a nice career going. Or had. According to IMDB (which still lists her exact birthday) she's appeared in or voiced more than 70 films, TV shows, and video games over the past ten years. Not too shabby.

It's also worth noting that according to IMDB she had roles in "Big Momma's House 2" and "Tropic Thunder" but the scenes were unfortunately deleted. (Note that those carry real Hollywood paydays anyway, so good for her.)

So what has hurt Ms. Hoang's career more? Producers knowing her true age or appearing in "Hoodrats 2: Hoodrat Warriors?" Hard to say, but all joking aside, it certainly looks like Amazon and IMDB did snoop into Ms. Hoang's private information and then post it for all to see, and that's wrong.

If Ms. Hoang wants to reveal her age to her fans and potential employers, she should do so. But if she wants to keep us all guessing, she should be afforded that courtesy.

I hope the case continues and I hope the media pay attention – there's a great deal at stake. The larger issues of privacy, snooping, and personal information being passed around between companies with whom we do business and companies that want to do business with us is relevant to us all. And with the increasingly intrusive nature of websites, apps, and programs, and the growing sophistication of data mining companies, we should all be wary. Your employer probably doesn't much care about your age, and you probably have no problem revealing it to them. But how would you feel about them knowing all the websites you go to, what you buy, and how you pay for it? Unsettling.

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