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Ancestry.com Beats California Privacy Suit Over Yearbook Photos

March 1, 2021, 10:21 PM

Ancestry.com Inc. convinced a federal judge on Monday to dismiss a lawsuit by California residents who claimed the genealogy-based company’s inclusion of their photos in its Yearbook database violated their privacy rights.

The California residents didn’t allege an injury in fact to support their proposed class action because the photographs came from “public yearbook information distributed to classmates (and ultimately to Ancestry),” Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler said for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The non-subscriber plaintiffs claimed Ancestry unjustly enriched itself by using their yearbook photos to solicit paying subscribers to its platform. But “Ancestry’s using the public profiles to solicit paying subscribers—standing alone—does not establish injury” under California’s privacy laws, the court said.

The plaintiffs also didn’t have a commercial interest in their public profiles that would block Ancestry’s use of the profiles for profit, the court said.

Even if the plaintiffs could establish standing, Ancestry is immune from civil liability under the federal Communications Decency Act, the court said. The disputed content was submitted to the Ancestry by third parties, and the company didn’t transform the data into new content by making it searchable or interactive, it said.

“Adding an interactive button and providing access on a different platform do not create content,” according to the opinion. “They just add functionality.”

However, the court denied Ancestry’s motion to strike the complaint as a violation of California’s anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation law.

Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to prevent litigation that intend to chill public participation and the exercise of one’s First Amendment rights. But the challenged conduct must be a matter of public interest, and “decades-old yearbooks are not demonstrably an issue of public interest,” the court said.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP represented Ancestry. Morgan & Morgan and Benjamin R. Osborn in Brooklyn, N.Y., represented the plaintiffs.

The case is Callahan v. Ancestry.com Inc., N.D. Cal., No. 20-cv-08437, 3/1/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Porter Wells in Washington at pwells@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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