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American Media Named in Latest Class Action over Subscriber Information Sales

Magazine publishers and list managers take note.  American Media is the latest magazine publisher to be hit with a class action lawsuit accusing it of violating subscribers’ privacy rights by selling information about them without written consent.  The suit is part of a growing trend, following similar allegations in the past year against leading media companies like Conde Nast parent company Advance Magazine Publishers Inc.,  Hearst Communications Inc. and Reader’s Digest publisher Trusted Media Brands, Inc., to challenge list rental practices under a long-ignored Michigan statute enacted in the wake of the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination proceedings.

On March 18, 2016, Elizabeth Moeller, individually and on behalf of a putative class, filed a suit against American Media and its subsidiary, Odyssey Magazine Publishing Group, Inc., in the Southern District of New York, challenging American Media’s alleged sale of its subscribers’ personal information—including their full names, titles of magazines subscribed to, and home addresses as well as other lifestyle and demographic information—to list brokers without subscribers’ consent.  The plaintiff claims that these list brokers sell subscribers’ information to telemarketers and other aggressive advertisers who then inundate them with a barrage of unwanted junk mail and telephone solicitations.

The plaintiff contends that any such sale by American Media violates Michigan’s Preservation of Personal Privacy Act, which provides in § 445.1712 that “a person, or an employee or agent of the person, engaged in the business of selling at retail, renting, or lending books or other written materials ... shall not disclose to any person, other than the customer, a record or information concerning the purchase ... of those materials by a customer that indicates the identity of the customer.”  Section 445.1713 contains a list of exceptions to this general prohibition, including when such disclosure “is for the exclusive purpose of marketing goods and services directly to the consumer,” in which case “[t]he person disclosing the information shall inform the customer by written notice that the customer may remove his or her name at any time by written notice to the person disclosing the information.”

TAKEAWAY:  Although the Michigan statue was enacted decades ago, a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers have focused their attention on it in recent years, bringing a series of class actions suits against magazine publishers and other companies like Redbox.  As a result, all media companies that disclose Michigan subscriber data should carefully consider their data collection and distribution practices. 

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