People-searching website PeopleConnect set to dismiss publicity rights lawsuit

Defendants in a class action lawsuit brought by putative classes of California and Alabama residents said the publicity rights lawsuit pending against them should be dismissed in a motion to dismiss filed Monday. As the first line of defense, Control Group Media Company LLC, Intelius LLC, and PeopleConnect Inc. argue that one plaintiff has agreed to arbitrate its claims individually while both plaintiffs’ claims fail for a myriad of other reasons.

The Southern California lawsuit filed in February alleges that the defendants operate websites that use the plaintiffs’ names and identities for commercial purposes without their consent. The complaint points to four websites that visitors use to search for information about individuals for free, returning information such as name, age and location. These sample searches allow defendants to promote and sell subscriptions for their paid services at plaintiffs’ expense, according to the filing, and in violation of California and Alabama right-to-publicity laws.

The defendants see it differently. The complaint attempts to use these laws “to attack that routine part of e-commerce – generating search results based on user queries – that these laws were never meant to cover,” the motion states. He defends their search results as no different from others such as “biographies” generated by Amazon.

In addition to its arbitration argument, the motion also asserts that plaintiffs have not asserted claims under the publicity rights laws of California and Alabama. On the one hand, the defendants claim that the complaint lacks facts alleging that anyone beyond the plaintiffs and their lawyers actually sought out information about these plaintiffs, thus punching a hole in the element requiring people searching for sites Web are illegally “using” complainants’ information.

The petition also uses a defense under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), noting that at least two courts have declared defendant Intelius immune from prosecution under the CDA. Defendants say they pass the three-prong test and further fall into a category of computer service providers that the Ninth Circuit has ruled immune, namely that the websites that defendants operate “meet the demand voluntary research from a user who informs him of the information that the Ninth Circuit the user wishes to see.

The motion also raises California’s anti-SLAPP and First Amendment defenses. The dismissal hearing is scheduled for May 16 before Judge Michael M. Anello.

Plaintiffs are represented by Bursor & Fisher PA and Edelson PC. Defendants are represented by Jenner & Block LLP.

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