Junie Hoang is famous now, in a 15-minutes sort of way.
But the media world and its legal eagles have yet to figure out how much she really matters.
Ms. Hoang is a B-movie actress who used to get nameless roles like the Headless Woman in “Domain of the Damned” or the Zombie Postwoman in “Z: A Zombie Musical.”
In January, however, she grabbed attention by identifying herself as the “Jane Doe” who had filed an anonymous lawsuit against the Internet Movie Database and its parent, Amazon.com, for disclosing her age, 40, in an online profile.
Now, Ms. Hoang is working with 42West, a publicity firm that represents Woody Allen and Meryl Streep. “Good Morning America,” “People” and others have requested interviews, in vain. (She declined to comment for this article as well.)
“She’s currently shooting a TV pilot,” Allan Mayer of 42West said via e-mail, when asked about Ms. Hoang’s professional activity. “No details are available.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Hoang’s lawsuit against IMDb and Amazon, filed last October in the United States District Court in Seattle, is promising to become a drawn-out battle that may expose more than the ire of an actress who claims her career was damaged by the revelation that she is older than she looks.
As the suit proceeds, the discovery process could show how IMDb, a vast repository of movie and television information that has become Hollywood’s quasi-official record book, compiles the facts and figures by which people in the entertainment industry are publicly defined. If Ms. Hoang’s lawyers prevail, moreover, the case may provide a road map for others who believe they have been abused by the biggest data collector in the film industry.
“Hundreds of people have come to us,” John W. Dozier Jr., who represents Ms. Hoang, said. Speaking by telephone last week, Mr. Dozier contended that “hundreds or thousands of people” might have similar claims, opening the door either to a class-action suit against Amazon and IMDb, or to additional suits challenging the site’s use of data. So the financial damage might conceivably reach beyond the $1 million-plus sought by Ms. Hoang.
Most of those contacting his Dozier Internet Law firm, Mr. Dozier said, have voiced complaints about their ages being listed on IMDb. But the core assertions in Ms. Hoang’s complaint relate not to the publication of age, per se, but rather to the way in which IMDb supposedly got its information.
According to Ms. Hoang’s suit, the IMDbPro professional portion of the site, which charges an annual access fee, used her credit card information to learn her real name, Huong Hoang. Then, she asserts, the site “scoured” publicly available data to find and publish her birthday, July 16, 1971 — which remains posted.
Amazon’s lawyers and a company spokeswoman declined to comment, citing a company policy against public discussion of pending litigation. But in their multiple legal responses, they have alternately dismissed Ms. Hoang’s claim as “selfish, contrary to public interest and a frivolous abuse” of the court, and bluntly denied the assertion that credit card information had been used to identify her.
What the Amazon team has not done yet is to disclose how IMDb did, in fact, link the actress Junie Hoang, a stage name, with the IMDb Pro subscriber Huong Hoang, one of perhaps 600 people in the United States with the same name, according to a public records database maintained by Nexis. If credit card information had been used, Amazon’s lawyers say in court filings, there still would have been no violation of law or the company’s privacy agreement.
Indeed, data-mining of that sort could appear downright primitive compared with the online tracking and behavioral advertising addressed in a set of online privacy principles outlined for Web-based business like Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others by the Obama administration this month.
But any court decision in the area will be closely watched.
“A judgment would likely be a great concern for the many companies who actively use mining services and information,” Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, said of Ms. Hoang’s suit in an e-mail last week. But he also pointed out that a dearth of specific legislation governing data use had left much in the hands of the courts.
Debate about age bias, Mr. Turley noted, has obscured the potential import of the case. “The age claim is so tenuous that it distracts from a legitimate concern over the mining of such information,” he said. Several publicists for movie stars, in fact, said last week that they had not collided with IMDb over age. “Age has never come up — just credits — and, yes, they were responsive,” said Kelly Bush, whose ID public relations firm has counted Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Diane Lane among its clients.
But IMDb looms large because of its reach — it claims more than 110 million monthly unique visitors worldwide and is often at or near the top of movie-related Google searches. And while its publication of vital statistics might not affect the stars, whose lives are widely scrutinized anyway, many second-tier performers and film workers believe the site exposes them to a film industry bias against older people.
The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists both criticized IMDb last October for its habit of publishing ages. “It is time for IMDb to step up and take responsibility for the harm it has caused,” they said in a joint statement.
Then, again, Ms. Hoang has achieved new prominence through her dispute with the site.
And the message boards at IMDb are still hot with discussion about her suit.
“I hope she wins,” begins one thread that was provoking comment last week. “I hope she loses and has to pay 100% of all fees,” begins another.
Either way, IMDb gets the traffic.