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Improper disclosure of others' mobile phone numbers in film and television works constitutes privacy infringement

Beijing Internet Court | Updated: 2021-07-20


A streaming TV series exposed a mobile phone number owned by the plaintiff surnamed Huang, resulting in Huang receiving frequent phone calls and WeChat (a popular social app in China) friend-adding requests from strangers. Huang filed a suit to the Beijing Internet Court (BIC) against TV series production companies A and B for privacy infringement.

The BIC issued its judgment of first instance, determined that the involved mobile phone number was disclosed improperly. The improper disclosure, caused by the production companies' subjective fault, disturbed the plaintiff's private life beyond a reasonable tolerance and constituted an infringement of Huang's privacy. 

Case summary:

According to the plaintiff, harassing phone calls and notifications of friend-adding requests on WeChat came up frequently since Nov 5, 2019, which severely disturbed Huang's life and work. It was discovered that Huang's phone number with real-name authentication was disclosed in the eighth episode of the involved TV series. Huang claimed that the defendants didn't conduct image processing which led to the disclosure of the phone number, and sued the production companies for privacy infringement, claiming 50,000 yuan ($7,740) in compensation for mental damages as well as 1,000 yuan for lawyer fees and another 1,000 yuan for lost wages due to the legal procedures required.

The defendants claimed that the use of the mobile phone number was appropriate and they processed the image in time and are thus not at fault.

The production company A, one of the defendants, said the phone number involved was purchased by staff and was used legally by the crew. The company found the number had been exposed in episode 8 of the TV series on Nov 8, 2019. It took immediate action by blurring the number on the picture and transmitted the updated video to the streaming platform on Nov 10 and completed the video replacement that day. So there is no subjective fault. The evidence submitted by Huang cannot prove the phone number disclosure is related to the privacy infringement, let alone prove it disrupted Huang's normal life, resulting in serious mental damage.

Defendant B argued that it was not involved in the production process of the TV series and has no obligation to review or monitor the TV series' content.

Focus of dispute:

Does the defendants' behavior constitute infringement of Huang's privacy?

The court ruled "yes" based on the following four considerations:

1. Defendants' behavior

The fact that the involved production companies disclosed Huang's phone number in their TV series online without permission already violated Huang's right to non-disturbance of personal life, inflicting potential fear, stress and disturbance. 

2. Consequences

Based on the evidence, Huang's private life was severely disturbed with multiple phone calls and WeChat notifications. The communications continued to arrive even after the production company processed the picture. The disturbance was beyond reasonable tolerance and Huang's life order was destroyed. 

3. Causality

Both the risks and the actual disturbance resulted from the disclosure of the phone number online which was character-related and triggered the curiosity of the viewers. There is thus a causality between the defendants' actions and the consequences Huang suffered. 

4. Subjective fault

The defendants did not take any risk prevention precautions when using the phone number in the TV series.

The legal use period claimed by production company A was obviously shorter than the production and broadcasting cycles.

The way of processing the image with modern technology is simple and would not cause extra production cost.

Based on all the above, the defendants are subjectively at fault in neglecting their obligations to avoid potential infringement. 

Judgment of first instance:

Company A and company B compensate Huang 3,000 yuan in mental damages and 1,000 yuan of lawyer's fees within 10 days after the judgment takes effect. 

Tips from the judges:

With the progress of social civilization, the protection of privacy as a basic civil right will be strengthened at both legislative and enforcement levels. In this context, it is necessary for the film and television production industry to improve the legal awareness of civil rights protection, follow the safe and necessary principles, and avoid invading citizens' private lives through improper behavior.