Class action lawsuit accuses Davenport-based Lee Enterprises, Inc. of online privacy violations

Iowa Capital Dispatch

The Iowa-based newspaper chain Lee Enterprises is facing a potential class-action lawsuit alleging it has shared readers’ personal information with Facebook in violation of federal law.

Lee publishes newspapers and other media content in 77 markets across 26 states. The company’s 10 Iowa papers include the Quad-City Times in Davenport, the Sioux City Journal, the Mason City Globe-Gazette the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier and the Muscatine Journal.

The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, alleges that Lee’s news-media websites offer users the option of subscribing to newsletters or to newspapers that provide consumers with access to articles and video content in exchange for their personal information, including names and mailing addresses.

The lawsuit claims Lee “does not adequately disclose” to subscribers that their personal identifying information is captured by various tracking methods embedded in the Lee websites, which allegedly is then transferred to the social-media company Facebook.

The lawsuit alleges that decades ago, Congress recognized the potential harm caused by that sort of information sharing in conjunction with video content. As a result, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act in 1988, prohibiting video providers from sharing, without consumers’ consent, any personally identifiable information that is tied to a customer’s viewing of specific, pre-recorded audio-video material.

The law defines a “video tape service provider” as any entity engaged in the “delivery of pre-recorded video cassette tapes or similar audio-visual materials,” and was intended to protect the privacy of individuals’ video rental and video-purchasing data. In 2012, Congress amended the law to include video-on-demand cable services as well as internet streaming services.

The plaintiffs claim Lee Enterprises “is a video service provider in that it provides pre-recorded audio-visual materials” to customers, and that the relationship between Lee and its subscribers is “precisely the type of relationship contemplated” by the federal law.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary injunction requiring Lee to immediately remove tracking tools from the company’s websites and to obtain the appropriate consent from subscribers for any information sharing that may take place.

According to the plaintiffs in the case, Facebook provides tools for web developers to monitor user interactions on their websites, and those interactions can then be shared with Facebook. Anyone with a developer’s console tool, which is built directly into commonly available internet browsers, can then monitor the transmission of data between Facebook and companies like Lee, the lawsuit claims.

Although the person monitoring the exchange of information wouldn’t see the name of the Lee customer, they would see that customer’s Facebook ID number — which, the lawsuit claims, can easily be used to identify the Facebook user. The plaintiffs say that one can simply append an unidentified individual’s Facebook ID number to the end of the URL in any internet browser, and that will open up the Facebook user’s public profile page, revealing whatever personal information they choose to have featured there.

In addition, individuals can allegedly use fairly basic web-browsing tools to see the titles of whatever video content triggered the initial exchange of information between Lee and Facebook, providing an indirect link between named Facebook users and the specific videos they have watched on Lee websites.

The plaintiffs say Lee’s newspaper websites have been standardized in response to the economic pressures facing the entire news industry. According to the lawsuit, that standardization has led to all of the Lee sites using the same software and offering readers much of the same content, which in turn has led to widespread violations of the federal privacy law.

“With fewer local reporters and editors working on local designs at the Greensboro News & Record, for example, Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan noted that ‘there are days when you open up the paper and find no original reporting,’” the plaintiffs’ petition states. “Rather than focusing on local news, the Lee sites are built using cookie-cutter templates and incorporating news and media from across the country.”

The lawsuit seeks payment of $2,500 to each class member participating in the lawsuit, plus damages and attorneys’ fees.

Lee Enterprises has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. Calls and emails to Lee’s corporate office and to Lee’s contracted communications firm were not answered Thursday.

In seeking class-action status for the case, the plaintiffs allege there are more than 100 potential class members and that the aggregate amount of money in controversy exceeds $5 million. So far, the plaintiffs in the case include Brittney Stoudemire of Alabama; Amanda Vose of Massachusetts; Lucinda Jackson of Ohio; Barbara Grazioli of New Jersey; Dana Foley of Illinois; and Douglas Castle of Indiana.

Editor’s note: News stories from the Iowa Capital Dispatch are sometimes republished in Lee Enterprises’ Iowa newspapers.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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