Purity Tests and Online Privacy Laws

VeronicaMarsIn S1E8 of Veronica Mars, Veronica’s friend Mac creates a “purity test” — a survey that determines how “pure” you are by asking questions about your sexual exploits. Needless to say the test goes viral at Neptune High, and everyone compares results and lies to their significant other about getting dubiously high purity scores.

Then, in typical Neptune High fashion, shit hits the fan. When almost everyone in the school has taken the test, the admin informs purity test takers that they can buy the results of ANYONE in the school, for only ten bucks a pop. And, predictably, all hell breaks loose as people buy test results for their friends and s.o.’s. The hallways are pure pandemonium as boyfriends confront allegedly virginal girlfriends. BFFs tear out each other’s hair after one realizes the other has slept with her boyfriend. Schadenfreude-ers merrily spray-paint purity scores on people’s lockers. Ah, high school kids. Not even lawyers are this hell bent on destroying each other.

So, let’s imagine that you took a sexual purity test IRL, and your answers to each question about your sexual history suddenly become available for purchase to the public. Your MOM is going to find out that your favorite position is the reverse cowgirl. What to do, what to do…

Let’s look at the law in California, home state of Neptune High. There is a potentially applicable statute here: The California Online Privacy Protection Act (OPPA). The gist is that any commercial website that collects personally identifiable information needs to post a privacy policy on the website, noting what kind of personal information is collected, and with whom the admin may share that information. And the policy needs to be conspicuous, meaning that you can’t just post a tiny scribble in a corner of a page saying “I know your name and I’m going to tell your parents.”

I’m going to assume Mac did not include this information on her website; in my experience, there are few who are both computer-savvy and legally savvy. In court, I imagine Mac’s primary defense would be that her website was not originally set up for “commercial” purposes. But I doubt any court would believe that selling the results later was merely an afterthought; it’s pretty clear that Mac intended to profit from the purity test. (Maybe the definition of “commercial” websites for purposes of OPPA will be contested later on, but there is no relevant caselaw so far — California only started enforcing OPPA in 2012). It seems, therefore, that Mac is screwed.

This statute is applicable to phone apps too, by the way. Companies can fact fines of up to $2,500 each time a non-compliant app is downloaded. Ouch. So just to be safe, if your website or app is collecting user info, post a good long privacy policy. Even if your state doesn’t have the equivalent of OPPA, it’s just nice to let people know you’re screwing them over before you actually do it. And if someone decides to sue you regardless, you would be able to say “See, I TOLD you I was going to tell your mom, but you went ahead and told me everything anyway.”

See if your state has a law regarding online privacy here.

The episode ends with Mac driving away in a brand-new lime green VW, seemingly having suffered no negative consequences from the whole fiasco. It’s hard to imagine that the whiny 09-ers of Neptune High wouldn’t have used their parents’ money to sue Mac (assuming they found out who was behind it all). But then again, who wants to risk filing a lawsuit and having their parents find out their purity scores? I would be terrified of my parents finding out I’ve done anything beyond holding hands with a boy … for a team building exercise … at a church retreat … under full supervision of a religious leader. So in a way, Mac has committed the perfect crime.

3 thoughts on “Purity Tests and Online Privacy Laws

    • Thanks! I always find myself wondering about these things, so I thought a website would be a good way to motivate myself to actually look into them. Also, it’s a good way to legitimize the fact that I spend a third of my waking hours in front of the TV.

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