Who Owns Personal Information?
Anatomy of a Privacy Case
The Case In the News
- The Economist (February 10, 1996) devotes the front story in the American section and
a Leader (=Editorial) to discuss the issue of privacy in the digital
revolution. Commenting that old ideas about privacy are fast becoming
obsolete, it reaches the conclusion that notifying consumers and getting
their permission before subsequent use of their names may be difficult to
enforce but is the only way to go. It notes that in America the courts are
making up the law as they go, and points to the Avrahami case as the one to
- USA Today (February 8, 1996), in its editorial cheers Avrahami, Robert Beken and
other individuals who stand against the flow of junk mail that jamms our
mailboxes and wastebaskets.
- Associated Press (February 6, 1996) sends on the wire a complete story about the case
and the outcome of the Feb 6 hearing. AP writes that Avrahami has emerged as
something of champion of the American Everyman. Story is picked up by almost
all local newspapers (San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer,
Charleston News-Courier, Kansas City Star, Seattle Times, and many more...).
- Los Angeles Times (Februay 5, 1996) published an Op-Ed by Ram Avrahami. Avrahami
describes the three systematic problems that are associated with junk mail
and why the situation is only getting worse. He concludes that this is his
duty to draw the line today by protecting his legal rights, in order to
prevent greater misuse of the information about his life in the future.
- Direct Magazine ("May I Have Your Name?" December 1995). Direct
writes of the Avrahami case "The list business could get a whole lot more complicated, depending on the outcome of a Virginia man's legal challenge to US News & World Report."
- Business Week ("Law and Order in Cyberspace," December 4, 1995). BW discusses growth of Internet spamming, "the widely despised practice of sending electronic junk mail." BW notes that much of the problem resilt from the fact that E-mail addresses are easy to identify and electronic advertising requires minimal overhead." BW says that an answer to the problem may come in the "closely watched case" involving U.S. News & World Report. "The case could have broad implications for businesses. Companies have begun selling electronic-mail addresses from lists compiled of visitors to World Wide Web and other sites."
- DM News ("List Name Rental Suit is Rescheduled," December 4, 1995). DM News notes continuance of suit till February 6.
- The Washington Times ("Suit Hits Sale of Names to Junk Mailers," November 28, 1995). A front-page story in the Washington Times describes the case against USN&WR. According to Margaret Gottlieb, a spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association quoted in the article, the DMA represents 3,600 companies worldwide. "The legislative bodies have decided that the ability to communicats across state channels is more important than the inconvenience of receiving a communication," said Ms. Gottlieb. EPIC director Marc Rotenberg responds that the lawsuit is over more than just junk mail. The larger issue is how much control people have over information about themselves. "Things have changed. Businesses have grown. The amount of personal data has mushroomed. . . . Without some safeguards the Internet could collapse in a flurry of useless information."
- Legal Times ("Avrahami v. U.S. News & World Report," November 13, 1995). Legal Times summarizes case and then quotes Shaw, Pittman's Fiske, "This case represents a clear-cut legal issue . . . . [Avrahami] is preaching the cause. We don't do this here. We try cases." Jonathan's Dailey, Ram's attorney, said he was confident that "the judge will see the bigger picture" and rule in his clients favor.
- San Francisco Chronicle ("Junk Mail Proliferating On Internet," November 2, 1995). Front-page Chronicle story describes the growth of junk e-mail on the Internet, and notes that a Los Angeles company is offering to sell advertisers 5 million electronic mail addresses for only $ 99. The Chronicle suggests that the Avrahami case may "decide future of direct mail lists -- both e-mail and print."
- The Washington Post ("Putting His Stamp On History," October 26, 1995). Steve Twomey describes Avrahami as perhaps the century's pivotal figure. He describes Ram's efforts to stem the flow of junkmil and then writes, "Think of what happens if Ram wins. Companies will have to call us, begging for permission. We might say yes, in return for a cut. Or we might say no, because we are above money. The river of junk mail and junk telephone into our homes could become a trickle. At last, we could eat dinner uninterrupted. As I said, Ram Avrahami might be the century's pivotal figure."
- CNN ("Name Should Remain Private to Person, Plaintiff Says," October 25, 1995). Bobbie Battista interviews Ram Avrahami live on CNN. From the CNN highlight: "Privacy and property rights, as well as the sheer waste, have prompted Ram Avrahami to sue to get his name off of mailing lists. He says junk mail is in clear violation of his personal rights."
- National Public Radio ("Virginia Man Sues Magazine for Sale of His Name," October 24, 1995). Bob Edwards interviews Ram Avrahami on NPR's morning edition. From the NPR highlight: "'U.S. News & World Report' is being sued by a man who says he's sick and tired of receiving junk mail. He's asking only for $100 and hopes to make it impossible for names to be sold without permission."
- The Houston Chronicle ("Junk Mail-hater Tries New Tack Against Foe; Sues U.S. News for Selling His Name," October 22, 1995). Wall Street Journal story (October 13, 1995, see below) appears in Houston Chronicle.
- Los Angeles Times ("Man Fed Up With Junk Mail Sends Message with Lawsuit," October 15, 1995). Washington Post story (September 18, 1995, see below) appears in LAT. California is one of the leading states for consumer privacy.
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ("Sneak Attack on Direct-Mail Industry," October 15, 1995). Wall Street Journal story (October 13, 1995, see below) appears in Sentinel. Wisconsin state legislature recently closed privacy office claiming lack of public interest. Sentinel story appears in Sunday edition.
- The Wall Street Journal ("Junk-Mail Hater Seeks Profits from Sale of His Name," October 13, 1995). WSJ features Avrahami case on cover of Marketplace section. The Journal notes that "this is far from the first time a consumer has asked a court to prohibit companies from using lists to distribute mail, but Mr. Avrahami's approach is unique; Previous suits have claimed, unsuccessfully, that the purchasers of of lists violated the privacy rights of junk-mail recipients by sending unwanted mail. But Mr. Avrahami isn't suing the Smithsonian. He says the sellers of lists are the lawbreakers. And he isn't claiming his privacy was violated; he claims the sale of his name violated his property rights."
- The Washington Post Business Section ("When Direct Mail Meets E-Mail, Privacy Issue Is Not Fully Addressed," October 9, 1995). Post story focuses on new direct marketing product based on data gathered from newsgroup posts, web site visits, and chat room comments. Privacy advocates express alarm. Post also mentions Avrahami case. "Just imagine the class-action suit against a mass emailer if this judicial gambit works."
- DM News ("Will List Litigation Put DMers Out of Circulation?" September 18, 1995). Former Hill staffperson Bob Gellman writes that two recent Supreme Court decisions could affect the outcome of the Virginia case. In the Florida Bar decision, the Supreme Court restricted direct mail solicitation from personal injury lawyers to victims for 30 days following an accident even after First Amendment concerns were raised. In a 1994 case involving the Freedom of Information Act, the court said that the disclosure of name and address information by the federal government was a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy. Gellman concludes that neither case directly supports the plaintiff lawsuit. But he also says that if "the court conducts a factual inquiry into marketing practices, it may be surprised at what it uncovers. Marketers are used to the wholesale collection and renting of personal data, but the average citizen and the average judge will be appalled. A shocked and aggressive court might extend common law privacy rights to place limits on buying and using personal information."
- The Washington Post ("Toward Jettisoning Junk Mail," September 18, 1995). WP notes case and asks why "should companies be allowed to rent their mailing lists to other organizations?" Avrahami comments, "I hope that my case might establish some guidelines to protect consumers and help them feel safer in the information age."
- Washington Business Journal ("Arlington man makes mountain out of mailhill," September 8-14). Peter Cassat, USN&WR's associate general counsel says, "It's the first such case we've seen." WBJ comments that the suit creates an interesting dilemma for USN&WR. "One option is to have it go to trial and let a jury decide the issue. Another is for the magazine to offer an out-of-court settlement. However, that approach opens the publisher to the possibility of the same suit by others."
- Privacy Times ("Holy Pandering! Dynamic Duo Takes on Junk Mailers", September 6). Avrahami says that he tried the Mail Preference Service and it did not work. "Besides the whole basis for MPS is wrong. It shouldn't be that you have to ask companies to stop using your name. It should be that you say you want your named used -- opt-in, instead of opt-out. " PT said that suit could "chip away at, if not shake, the foundations of the direct mail industry."
- DMNews ("In Test Case, Subscriber Sues Mag. for Renting His Name," August 29, 1995). DMNews reports that a lawsuit against USN&WR "could change the way lists are rented and sold." Dave Bianchi of Direct Marketing Inc. says its the first case of its type he's heard of. DMN comments that if "Avrahami wins the suit . . . direct marketers and list companies in the state would be forced to obtain the permission of everyone on their lists before they could rent or sell a list for commercial purposes."
- Richmond Times-Dispatch ("Magazine's sale of man's name triggers lawsuit," August 27). The RTD begins with a simple question, "Should a consumer's name and address be up for sale simply because he does business with someone?" Mr. Avrahami answers, "I feel that taking my name and information about me and selling it without my permission is an invasion of my privacy." The Direct Marketing Association notes that there are more than 15,000 consumer lists with 2 billion names available. The DMA public relations manager said "A consumer can always not respond to an ad or throw a mailing out. So I don't think there's any violation of their rights." Avrahami says, "I think it's important to set a guideline before we have an explosion of information and misuse of the information."
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Last modified: March 23, 1996
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