Update: President Obama signed the amendments we discuss below into law on January 10, 2013.
Remember when Spotify first came out and everyone on your Facebook news feed was spamming you with what they were listening to? Most of them didn’t even realize they were doing it, and people were annoyed all around. Well, get ready for the same thing to happen…with what people are watching on Netflix.
A revised version of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) has already passed both the House and the Senate. All it needs is President Obama’s signature, and he’s said publicly that he’s going to do it.
At the same time Congress was making it easier to publicize the movies you watch, the Senate dropped a provision from the same bill that would have required police to get a warrant to access citizens’ emails older than 6 months (the weak protection that unveiled the General Petraeus affair). In the end, we have less protection for what we watch and the same low protection for our email inboxes. Not a good week for online privacy.
Sharing the list of movies & TV shows watched on Netflix was previously illegal because of the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988. The history around the VPPA is really interesting–judge Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court, and his opponents went around trying to dig up personal dirt on him anywhere they could, including the list of movies he’d rented at his local video store. Nothing controversial showed up, but the public reacted with shock and disgust that someone’s rental list could be publicly exploited like that.
Enter the VPPA, which provided strong privacy protection for a person’s rental/watch list. The VPPA made it mandatory to get someone’s explicit approval every time you wanted to share their rental list (that, or you’d need a warrant).
The recent amendments allow someone to give this approval online, and only once every 2 years. Netflix spent half a million dollars lobbying Congress on the bill.
Although this isn’t actually a law yet–President Obama still has to sign it–the change in the law allows Netflix users to opt-in to frictionless sharing on Facebook. That means that everything a person watches will automatically post to Facebook. It’ll be a lot like how people constantly barrage Facebook with what they’re listening to on Spotify. As part of the law, Netflix will have to give people a “clear and conspicuous” option to stop sharing and will also have to check in with people who have opted in every 2 years. The company said they’re planning on introducing this social sharing feature in 2013.
It’s good that this choice is opt-in, but it’s unlikely that most people realize how their movie-watching history or their movie ratings on Netflix could personally identify them. In the now famous Netflix study, researchers were able to identify 99% of people in Netflix’s supposedly anonymized user database just by looking at when and how a user rated six movies, then cross-referencing those ratings against the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). And of course, automatically sharing everything you watch could dissuade people from watching more controversial (but still valuable) things, like political or religious documentaries.
Would you opt in to letting Netflix auto-share everything you watch on Facebook? Are you looking forward to–or dreading–seeing what everyone you know is watching?