A proposed class action claims Hearst Communications, Inc. has violated an Illinois privacy law by selling lists of its subscribers’ identities to “anyone willing to pay for [them].”
According to the lawsuit, Hearst, the publisher responsible for magazine titles such as Good Housekeeping,Car and Driver, Cosmopolitan, Country Living, Food Network Magazine, Men’s Health, Town and Country and others, has, without providing notice to or obtaining consent from subscribers, offered to sell its mailing lists to “any member of the public willing to pay for them.” As a result, the suit says, subscribers’ personal information—including their names, addresses, magazine subscriptions, gender, age, ethnicity, income, political party, religion and charitable donation history—has been made available to the general public for Hearst’s commercial benefit.
Per the lawsuit, Hearst, by selling subscribers’ information to data aggregators, marketing companies, non-profit organizations, political donors and generally anyone else who pays for its mailing lists, has violated the Illinois Right of Publicity Act (IRPA), a state law that prohibits the use of residents’ identities for commercial purposes without their written consent.
“The IRPA clearly prohibits what Hearst has done,” the complaint asserts, alleging the publisher has failed to obtain the consent of or even provide notice to subscribers before advertising and selling their information online.
The case out of Illinois federal court claims Hearst, either directly or through list brokers such as NextMark, Inc., offers for sale various mailing lists that contain the personal information of its magazine subscribers. For example, a list titled “GOOD HOUSEKEEPING Mailing List” can be purchased on NextMark’s website at a base price of “$115.00/M [per thousand],” the suit says. Another mailing list titled “HEARST CORPORATE MASTERFILE & ENHANCED Mailing List” allegedly contains the personal reading information of all 9,108,589 subscribers to Hearst’s publications, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges Hearst’s sale of subscribers’ information amounts to the commercial use of their identities without written consent, which the suit says is a blatant violation of the IRPA.
“Thus, by offering to sell to the community at large and by selling, on the open market to the general public, mailing lists that identify, by name and other personally identifying attributes, each of the Illinois residents (including Plaintiff and each member of the Class) to whom it sold a subscription to a particular magazine, without any of these individuals’ consent (written or otherwise), Hearst directly violated the IRPA,” the complaint charges.
The suit goes on to allege that Hearst’s conduct is not only unlawful, but dangerous. More particularly, the case notes that the public sale of subscribers’ information allows “any member of the public willing to purchase this data” to specifically target particular groups, including vulnerable members of society such as the elderly, using the individuals’ identities, interests and other demographic data.
“So while Hearst profits handsomely from the use of its customers’ identities in this way, it does so at the expense of its customers’ statutory right of publicity,” the lawsuit reads.
The case looks to represent all Illinois residents who, during the statutory period, had their name appear on a mailing list sold or offered for sale to members of the public by Hearst without their consent.
A broader list of Hearst’s publications includes Bicycling, Car and Driver, Cosmopolitan, Country Living, Elle, Elle Decor, Esquire, Food Network Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, HGTV Magazine, House Beautiful, Marie Claire, Men’s Health, Popular Mechanics, Prevention, Road & Track, Runner’s World, Town and Country, Veranda, Woman’s Day, and Women’s Health magazines.
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