At first glance, a new law just passed in California requiring IMDb and other entertainment database sites to remove upon request the ages of paid subscribers — i.e. the actors, producers, and other industry types who use them — might not seem so significant. After all, those ages will still be available elsewhere online, be it Wikipedia, the media, or even darker corners of the World Wide Web, and the entrenched ageism and sexism being targeted by the law are hardly going to disappear overnight because you can’t look up how old someone is on IMDb anymore.
But this kind of thinking also understates the problem of the age gap in Hollywood, especially for women. In 2014, a study looking at the earnings of 168 male and 97 female movie stars between 1968 and 2008 found that average yearly income for the men rose until age 51, then leveled off, whereas for women, income increased until age 34 then went of a cliff, falling sharply for the remainder of their careers. Anecdotal evidence of the wage gap has become regularly scheduled programming, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amanda Seyfried among the latest stars to provide testimony, and the recent Forbes lists of the highest-paid male and female actors reflected the gulf as well.
Of course, these are also exactly the women whose ages aren’t disappearing from the public record any time soon; household names have little hope of obscuring any private information that makes its way online — like, say, stolen nude photos — much less statistics as fundamental as age. Instead, this law, which was vigorously championed by the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA, should prove more important to another group.
“While age information for Hollywood’s biggest stars is readily available from other online sources, this bill is aimed at protecting lesser known actors and actresses competing for smaller roles,” California State Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon said in a statement. “These actors should not be excluded from auditioning simply based on their age.”
For smaller-profile actors, IMDb can essentially function as a public resume, and it’s often one of the first results that shows up when you Google any given actor’s name. These actors are paying for the privilege of having that profile, which is where the state’s ability to regulate the information that they have control over comes from in the first place. While the internet industry has opposed the bill, arguing that it hampers free speech, that suggestion doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny; your Facebook profile may be public, but removing information from it hardly qualifies as a First Amendment violation. If you’re paying for the ability to control the information that appears on your IMDb page, it stands to reason that you should be able to remove any information on it you don’t want to disclose.
Looked at as an issue of workplace discrimination, then, the decision becomes one of best practices. Just like you wouldn’t, and in fact can’t, require a job candidate to reveal how old they are on a resume or application, mandating that age must remain on a subscriber-based professional database seems to run counter to labor laws. If IMDb’s primary concern was complete freedom of information, it could always just not accept money from the people who provide much of the content on its site, freeing itself from the jurisdiction of the law.
While the decision should have a tangible impact for certain actors — like the one who lost a lawsuit against IMDb in 2013 over having her age removed — it’s also a matter of optics. In a society and culture in which we often seem to believe we have a right to access the personal lives of people in general, and women in particular, this legislation points toward another way.