Scrap consumer privacy law to get Netflix on Facebook? No thanks.

September 28, 2011

nettrix logoNetflix recently unveiled a new feature: integration with Facebook.

This integration allows Netflix users to share what they watch with their Facebook Friends and to find out what their friends are watching both on Facebook and Netflix.

Unfortunately, a dusty, outdated consumer privacy law is standing in the way of Netflix’s grand designs to improve its customers’ lives.

Actually, no, it doesn’t.

That “outdated” law – the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) – doesn’t interfere with Netflix’s plans at all…at least with the part they’ve announced publicly.

The lack of understanding of how this law functions is astounding.

What’s even more astounding, though, is how many individuals are willing to write and publish opinion pieces in support of Netflix without a seeming understanding of the VPPA.

Quite simply, here’s what it does:

It prevents a video rental merchant (or similar service providers) from disclosing an individual’s video rental records without user consent (or a police warrant, but that’s a separate issue).

The opinion articles I’ve that read on this issue supporting Netflix speak as though the VPPA interferes with consumer choice.

It doesn’t.  It epitomizes consumer choice.

What’s Netflix’s problem with it?

The VPPA, as it currently stands, requires a rental-by-rental consent for disclosure from the consumer because it only allows disclosure to a third-party at the time of the user’s consent.

And, more importantly, it requires the consumer to be informed of who they consent their information to be released to.

This means that the VPPA bars Netflix from allowing advertising and marketing firms to constantly monitor your video-viewing activities (what you watch, the time of day, the duration, etc), and that’s bad for their business.

Netflix is trying to change the VPPA, though, and has spent almost $200,000 this year in lobbying expenditures to do it.

In fact, there’s already a bill in the House created specifically for that purpose, introduced by, as Netflix puts it, “forward-thinking members of Congress” (i.e. people who like money).

How does the bill affect the VPPA?

It allows consumers to give an online blanket consent, so that, once you consent to share anything (which is very likely a requirement of even using Netflix’s Facebook app), you consent to share everything.  With everyone.

With the amount of misinformation out there (helped in no small part by Netflix), the bill is likely to pass.

People frothing at the mouth over the next technological spectacle that is watching Netflix movies on Facebook may be perfectly willing to sacrifice all personal privacy to obtain it.

They may not understand how much even the most miniscule bit of personal information could be used against them, though.

Consider the circumstances leading up to the creating of the VPPA:

Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s first Supreme Court nomination to replace the retiring Lewis Powell, was heavily scrutinized in the Senate.

During the debate over his nomination, Bork’s video rental history was acquired and leaked to the press.

The list didn’t contain anything significant, and the stunt was mainly intended to denounce Bork’s opposition to privacy rights.

Nevertheless, it disturbed Congress so much that it passed the VPPA a year later.

Most of us can’t relate to being politically dissected like Bork was, but we can relate to the job application process.

As our personal lives become more public, as Netflix wants, the likelihood of losing an employment prospect over movie tastes becomes very high.

I, for one, don’t believe this is a fair price for watching movies on Facebook.