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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

District court compels arbitration of biometric privacy suit

Courts Arbitration Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Class Action


On May 15, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted an online photography company’s motion to compel arbitration in a biometric privacy lawsuit, notwithstanding the company’s unilateral modification of arbitration terms after the lawsuit was filed. According to the opinion, the plaintiffs created an account on the company’s website in August 2014. In May 2015, the company added an arbitration provision to its Terms of Use. In June 2019, the plaintiffs filed the proposed class action alleging the company violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) “by using facial-recognition technology to extract biometric identifiers for ‘tagging’ individuals and by ‘selling, leasing, trading, or otherwise profiting from Plaintiffs’…biometric information.’” In September 2019, the company sent an email to all of its users that its account Terms of Use were updated, including provisions regarding arbitration. The email stated that if users continued to use the website or did not close their account by October 1, 2019, they were deemed to have accepted the updated terms. The plaintiffs’ account remained open as of October 2, 2019. The company moved to compel arbitration of the plaintiffs’ claims. The plaintiffs argued that the September 2019 email did not create a binding agreement to arbitrate and that it should not apply retroactively to the June 2019 claim.

The court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, concluding that they were already bound to arbitration by the 2015 update to the company’s terms of use, because the terms accepted in 2014 included a “change-in-terms” provision, allowing the company to revise terms from time to time by posting revisions. Moreover, the court disagreed with the plaintiffs that the September 2019 email was “an attempt by [the company] to ‘surreptitiously’ bind unwitting putative class members to arbitration agreements,” noting that the 2019 modifications did not significantly alter users’ rights under the arbitration agreement and the court would “not rely on the 2019 email to find that any putative class members agreed to arbitrate.”

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