A proposed class action claims Ancestry.com has used the photographs, likenesses, names and identities of California consumers to advertise and sell its subscription products without obtaining the individuals’ consent to do so.
The 33-page lawsuit, filed against Ancestry.com Operations Inc.; Ancestry.com, Inc.; and Ancestry.com LLC, says the defendants’ business model relies on amassing and selling access to “huge databases of personal information,” including names, photographs, addresses, places of birth, estimated ages, schools attended and other biological information—all without permission from possibly millions of California consumers.
“Ancestry has not received consent from, given notice to, or provided compensation to tens of millions of Californians whose names, photographs, biographical information, and identities appear in its Ancestry Yearbook Database,” the lawsuit claims, charging that the trove of information has allowed Ancestry to increase its profits by attracting customers.
The allegations in the case center on Ancestry’s “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999” database, which the suit says includes the personal information of over 60 million individuals who attended schools in California. According to the case, most of the 60 million people found in the school yearbook database have never provided consent for their information to be used by Ancestry.
Users who sign up for Ancestry.com’s free 14-day trial are granted temporary access to search, view and download records, including names, estimated ages, cities of residence, schools attended, years of attendance, and full-resolution yearbook photos, from the website’s vast databases, the lawsuit says. Per the complaint, the “sole purpose” of offering the free trial is to entice users into signing up for one of Ancestry’s subscription plans, which range in price from $24.99 to $49.99 per month.
In other words, Ancestry is knowingly using the personal information of millions of Californians to advertise and sell its subscription products—all without the individuals’ consent, the case avers. With the exception of implied consent from the individuals who willingly gave information to the defendant, Ancestry.com, the lawsuit alleges, “makes no attempt to contact or gain consent” from anyone whose information appears in a donated yearbook.
“Ancestry is apparently alert to the risks its business model runs under copyright law, but it does not even attempt to meet its obligations under the California right to publicity,” the suit reads.
The lawsuit goes on to claim that any visitor to Ancestry.com is provided a limited-access version of the site that allows them to search for specific individuals and view a list of records that include the person’s name, city of residence, and a low-resolution version of a yearbook photo. Users are then encouraged to “sign up now” for a paid subscription in order to view more information, the case relays.
This tactic, as well as promotional emails sent to potential customers that include individuals’ personal information, is designed to entice consumers into signing up for a paid subscription and current subscribers to upgrade to more expensive plans, the lawsuit claims. The problem, according to the suit, is that Ancestry uses the records of tens of millions of Californians without providing any notice to the subjects the records, obtaining their consent to use the information, or offering any compensation for the ongoing use of their names, photographs, likenesses and identities as part of Ancestry’s services and advertising campaigns.
Per the complaint, the “vast majority” of people whose personal information appears in Ancestry’s yearbook database have no business relationship with the company, do not subscribe to any of Ancestry’s plans, and are not subject to any Terms of Service or other agreement with Ancestry.
The suit alleges violations of California’s Right of Publicity statute and Unfair Competition Law, among other apparent state law abuses.
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