This past week, the First Circuit issued a notable opinion concerning the contours of liability under the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) – a decision that stirs up further uncertainty as to where to draw the line regarding VPPA liability when it comes to mobile apps. (See Yershov v. Gannett Satellite Information Network Inc., No. 15-1719 (1st Cir. Apr. 29, 2016)). The opinion, which reversed the dismissal of the case by the district court, took a more generous view than the lower court as to who is a “consumer” under the statute.

Subject to certain exceptions, the VPPA prohibits “video tape service providers” from knowingly disclosing, to a third-party, “personally identifiable information concerning any consumer.” 18 U.S.C. §2710(b). Under the VPPA, the term “consumer” means any “renter, purchaser, or subscriber of goods or services from a video tape service provider.” 18 U.S.C. §2710(a)(1). The term “personally identifiable information” includes “information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific video materials or services from a video tape service provider.” 18 U.S.C. §2710(a)(3).

In Yershov, a user of the USA Today app alleged that each time he viewed a video clip, the app transmitted his mobile Android ID, GPS coordinates and identification of the watched video to a third-party analytics company to create user profiles for the purposes of targeted advertising, all in violation of the VPPA. In dismissing the complaint, the lower court had found that while the information the app disclosed was “personally identifiable information” (PII) under the VPPA, the plaintiff, as the user of a free app, was not a consumer (i.e., a “renter, purchaser, or subscriber” of or to Gannett’s video content) protected by the VPPA.

Personally Identifiable Information

The First Circuit agreed with the district court that the individual’s information at issue was, in fact, PII. As the appeals court noted, the statutory term “personally identifiable information” is “awkward and unclear.” As a result, courts are still grappling with whether unique device IDs and GPS data are PII under the statute. The analysis has not been consistent. For example, last year a New York court ruled that an anonymized Roku device serial number was not PII because it did not necessarily identify a particular person as having accessed specific video materials. In Yershov, however, the district court found, at the motion to dismiss stage, that the plaintiff plausibly alleged that the disclosed information (i.e., Android ID + GPS data + video viewing information) was PII under the VPPA. The appeals court agreed, concluding that the transmittal of GPS information with a device identifier plausibly presented a “linkage” of information to identity (i.e., the plaintiff adequately alleged that “Gannett disclosed information reasonably and foreseeably likely to reveal which USA Today videos Yershov has obtained”). While the court’s explanation was relatively scant, its reasoning seemed to hinge on the collection of a user’s GPS data that the court suggested could be simply processed to locate a user on a street map.

“Consumer” under the VPPA

The court of appeals next tackled whether the plaintiff was a “consumer” within the meaning of the statute. The court had to determine whether to follow a sister court’s holding that a user of a free app was generally not a “consumer” under the Act (particularly if the user was not required to sign up for an account, make any payments, or receive periodic services, or was otherwise granted access to restricted content), or another older ruling that reached an opposite conclusion. In taking a broad reading of “consumer,” the First Circuit held that while the plaintiff paid no money nor opened an account, he was a “consumer” under the Act because “access was not free of a commitment to provide consideration in the form of that information, which was of value to Gannett.” In asking the rhetorical question, “Why, after all, did Gannett develop and seek to induce downloading of the App?”, the court saw some form of value exchange in the relationship between app owner and user that rose to the level of a subscriber under the VPPA:

“And by installing the App on his phone, thereby establishing seamless access to an electronic version of USA Today, Yershov established a relationship with Gannett that is materially different from what would have been the case had USA Today simply remained one of millions of sites on the web that Yershov might have accessed through a web browser.”

Ultimately, the court summarized its holding this way:

“We need simply hold, and do hold, only that the transaction described in the complaint–whereby Yershov used the mobile device application that Gannett provided to him, which gave Gannett the GPS location of Yershov’s mobile device at the time he viewed a video, his device identifier, and the titles of the videos he viewed in return for access to Gannett’s video content–plausibly pleads a case that the VPPA’s prohibition on disclosure applies.”

Final Considerations

While the proceedings in this case are still preliminary and the case may yet falter based on other issues, video-based app providers should take notice, particularly with respect to the following questions:

  • When does the disclosure of a unique device number cross the line into PII under the VPPA? While there is certainly a point where such information is too remote or too dependent on what the court called “unforeseeable detective work,” mobile app owners should, in light of Yershov, reexamine practices that involve the disclosure of mobile geolocation data without express, informed consent.
  • When is the user of a free app a “consumer” under the VPPA? While the court reversed the lower court’s ruling on this issue, further discovery of the relationship between the app and the user and how it differs from the relationship between the USA Today website and its users may alter the court’s reasoning. Also, in a future dispute in another circuit, a court might take a narrower position that a “consumer” or “subscriber” under the VPPA requires at least some of the following indicia of a subscription, such as payment, registration, user commitment, regular delivery, or access to restricted content.