Recently, a teenager reminded me how intimidating it can be when you’re trying to change things, but are acutely aware of being “just a teenager.” It’s been a looooong time since I ever felt that way, of course, but as I listened to his story, I felt some of the anxiety he was experiencing.
“Kenny” (not his real name) was 14 when a then-friend of his created IMDb pages about them both, claiming that Kenny had starred in a movie, produced movies, and was involved in an online film school that could be seen on YouTube. Since then, it bothered him that the film credits were all a bunch of lies but those lies were tied to his real name and his real location.
Now 19, Kenny found that he couldn’t stop thinking about the false page and the fact that it had created false digital footprints while exposing his real personal information like location. So he reached out to IMDb and followed their procedures to request removal of the page.
But IMDb refused to remove the page. The same firm that very clearly states:
Given the sheer volume and the nature of the information we list, occasional mistakes are inevitable and, when spotted/reported, they are promptly verified and fixed. That’s why we welcome corrections and submissions.
refused to remove the page. IMDb’s Helpdesk employees repeatedly claimed that their research indicated that there were “live” and “factual” credits on Kenny’s page and that therefore, IMDb’s policy was not to remove the information.
They did not indicate how they researched the errors or what evidence they think they found that non-existent movies and non-existent credits exist, or are otherwise “live” or “factual.”
And this wasn’t just one Helpdesk employee making that false claim and refusing to remove the page. It was multiple Helpdesk employees.
After trying politely a few times and hitting the same wall and claims about “factual credits” and their “policy” each time, Kenny contacted this blogger for help.
Last week, Kenny filed a consumer complaint against IMDb with his state’s attorney general (we are not publicly disclosing his state to protect his privacy).
He also filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Kenny’s complaint alleges that IMDb engages in deceptive and unfair practices, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act:
IMDb makes deceptive claims on its site. IMDb claims to have a system to promptly remedy and correct errors, but they have repeatedly failed to properly investigate and correct errors. IMDb’s claims are therefore deceptive. The FTC has previously taken enforcement action against firms that make claims about opt-out remedies where the “remedies” do not exist or are not effective. IMDb’s claims about remedying errors should be viewed through that same lens. As Woodrow Hartzog recently stated so simply and eloquently in his book, Privacy’s Blueprint, if a firm makes a promise to consumers, they should keep it.
IMDb engages in unfair conduct, i.e., their practices are likely to cause significant consumer harm, consumers cannot reasonably avoid the harm, and neither consumers nor competition derive any benefit from IMDb hosting false pages about people. IMDb knows that members of the public are uploading content and that there may be many errors, which is why they assure that they will investigate and remedy errors. Kenny is not even a public figure – he is a private figure. Kenny derives no benefit and only ongoing harm and stress from IMDb’s conduct.
Of note, Kenny is not the only consumer to complain about IMDb’s deceptive and unfair practices. As we discovered in preparing his complaint, other consumers have raised the same concerns and frustrations alleging IMDb falsely claims that inaccurate information is “live” and “factual” and therefore, they refuse to remove it. While we will not post all the links here, one consumer recently shared her upsetting experience on IMDb’s site:
Hello – I have been trying to clear up incorrect birth date information for a few months, with no response at all. IMDb refuses to correct it. It was the correct date for years, then someone at IMDb changed it in September of 2017, after I vehemently complained about other incorrect information (falsely stated marriage, which was posted by my ex-boyfriend who turned out to be a stalker… IMDb continues to stand by this false info) and their written refusal to do so. They told me the false marriage information case was “closed” and don’t write to them again. I believe someone at the IMDb help desk is angry with me for persisting on these changes, and they decided to punish me by making me “older” online. I have sent them copies of my birth certificate, passport, and driver’s license – along with a notarized statement – and there is just silence in response. I would really appreciate the false marriage information and the incorrect birth date being removed. It’s causing me problems.
“Michelle, Official Rep” for IMDb answered her this way:
Please be aware that it is our policy not to alter or delete any kind of correct/factual information or credit from our records.Based on our own sources and research, we believe the birthdate information listed on the site for your page is correct and cannot be changed.
What sources? What research? How absurd is it that they are challenging someone who sent in documentation?
Consumers should not have to go through such anguish and work to get a commercial entity like IMDb to correct its records. They should be held to their promises.
If you are with a privacy-oriented or consumer-oriented organization and would like to get more details from Kenny’s case (including screenshots of his interactions with IMDb) so that you can file a supplemental complaint with the FTC, please contact this site from your organization’s email account. And if you cannot file a supplemental complaint but would like to support Kenny’s efforts to get the false page about him removed, please speak up on Twitter (or yes, even Facebook) to show him your support. You can even tweet to @FTC, and they do read tweets to them. Some of the Commissioners also have Twitter accounts.
If you are a reporter who would like to report on this matter, you can contact Kenny by emailing admin.at.pogowasright.org with subject “Please forward to Kenny.”
It takes a special kid to tackle a large corporation. Hopefully the FTC will level the playing field for Kenny. The mental anguish he has suffered and continues to suffer has been a lot for his young shoulders to handle. Hopefully, his state attorney general’s office will also offer him some meaningful assistance.
Special thanks to Justin Brookman and Bill Fitzgerald, who both reviewed an earlier draft of the FTC complaint and offered their helpful suggestions. I am not uploading the complaint at this time to protect Kenny’s privacy, but we will share it with other privacy organizations who are interested in getting the FTC to take enforcement action. We may upload a redacted version of the complaint in the future.