Broadband Users Can't Sue Comcast for Alleged Privacy Violations

Users of Comcast's high-speed Internet service cannot sue the company for allegedly violating a law that protects the privacy of cable television customers, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Broadband Internet Access Not "Cable Service"

Broadband Internet access is not "cable service" even if it is provided by a company like Comcast that also provides cable television service, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit said.

Plaintiff Jeffrey Klimas filed a lawsuit alleging Comcast violated the Cable Act by collecting personally identifiable information about users of the company's broadband Internet service without their knowledge or consent from December 2001 to February 2002.

The complaint said the information included everything the users did on the Web - which sites they visited, personal information they submitted to these sites, files downloaded from the sites, and e-mail messages sent or received through Web-based e-mail services.

The information was linked to each computer's Internet protocol address, which is the string of numbers that identifies each computer that is connected to the Internet. Comcast maintains records of which customers' computers used which IP addresses and at which times, the complaint said.

The company also has the ability to link a computer's IP address at a particular time with other information about the customer who used that computer, including the customer's name, address and telephone number, the complaint alleged.

Klimas accused Comcast of violating a Cable Act provision that requires cable operators to tell customers about how certain information about them is collected and used.

The company also violated a provision that prohibits cable operators from collecting "personally identifiable information" from their subscribers without consent, unless collection of the information is necessary for the operator to provide cable service, the complaint said.

While it is necessary for an Internet service provider to link a computer's IP address to the addresses of Web sites that a computer user visits, Comcast went one step further and stored that information in violation of the Cable Act, the complaint alleged.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted Comcast's motion to dismiss, ruling that IP addresses are not personally identifiable information under the Cable Act's definition.

Klimas appealed to the 6th Circuit, which affirmed, but for a different reason.

6th Circuit's Reasoning

The case should be dismissed, the panel said, because the Cable Act's privacy provisions apply only to subscribers of cable service, not to users of Internet access provided by a cable company.

The panel said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that high-speed Internet access provided via cable was an "information service" and not a "telecommunications service."

Other courts have reached the same conclusion, the panel said.

"Even though the ... [Internet service provider] in this dispute is also a cable service provider, the collection of the data in this case had nothing whatever to do with Comcast's cable service or with information regarding its cable subscribers," the panel said.

Klimas v. Comcast Cable Communications Inc., No. 03-2012, 2006 WL 2772747 (6th Cir. Sept. 28, 2006).
Computer & Internet Litigation Reporter
Volume 24, Issue 10
10/18/2006