Thanks Congress, But We Need Privacy Laws, Not Banal Social Sharing

Great news! The U.S. Congress just sent a bill to President Obama's desk that will make it easier to tell your Facebook friends what you're watching on Netflix. Now when that kid you haven't spoken to since 10th grade chemistry watches the new season of Arrested Development, you'll be the first to know about it. Such is the result of the "frictionless sharing" revolution Facebook promised us.

But there's another aspect to this news. A provision in the new law that would have required the feds to get a warrant before snooping through your Gmail account was silently yanked at the last minute. 

Meet The Video Privacy Protection Act Amendments Act

The Video Privacy Protection Act Amendments Act reverses an anachronistic side effect of the original 1988 law, which prevented Netflix from launching the same type of "frictionless sharing" feature that Spotify and other digital media companies teamed up with Facebook to enable in 2011. 

It's frustrating when laws written decades ago have unexpected effects on technology and services whose existence was inconceivable when the laws were drafted. In that sense, it's a good thing that the law was updated to enable these new companies to do this new thing that is unrelated to what the original law was trying to regulate.

But frictionless sharing is a meaningless sideshow compared to the much bigger issue of privacy - especially privacy for cloud-hosted documents and data. And Congress is getting the balance completely backwards.

What's With Gutting Those Privacy Protections?

The word "privacy" shows up right in the name of the Video Privacy Protection Act Amendments Act. But by scrapping the warrant requirement in the new amendments, Congress has dealt a very unfortunate blow to digital privacy. 

The ease with which authorities can access information about citizens via mobile providers and Internet companies is outrageous. 

There's a reason that a protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" was baked into the founding document of our society. Back then, a search meant whatever somebody was carrying in their pockets, or whatever they kept inside their home or workplace. Today, to search my house, the government would need a warrant. But that's not necessarily the case for my email and data hosted on cloud-hosted service. If anything, privacy protections for personal documents and data stored in the cloud should be even more stringent than what is required to search your home or person. But they're not. 

Congress had a chance to fix that - but it punted. 

It's great that tech companies can get their way in Washington. Quite often, that will lead to more innovation and a more level playing field. In many cases, the benefits will trickle down to consumers, whose interests are often parallel with those of tech companies. But that's not always the case. And it's not the case here. 

Frictionless Sharing Is Useless For Consumers

In fact, even apart from the epic fail on the privacy issue, there's little benefit for real people in The Video Privacy Protection Act Amendments Act. Frictionless sharing was supposed to become a major trend after Facebook rolled out a bunch of integrations with media content providers at its F8 developers conference in 2011. Thank goodness it didn't.

This type of sharing makes total sense for the companies involved. Facebook nabs an even meatier slice of our fractured attention spans and services like Spotify and Rdio see a spike in users as millions of new people are exposed to their branding and invited to consume their content via the biggest social network on the planet. 

Facebook users, on the other hand, were not enamored with the feature, which throws up a stream of everything they listen to and read, but only from sources that partner with Facebook. It presumes that my friends give a damn if I happen to be on a Radiohead binge, compared to sharing a single song and explaining why it's meaningful to me. They don't.

The implementation of frictonlessly shared news is even more egregious. When I clicked on a headline that bubbled up via a publisher's "social reader" Facebook app, instead of being taken to the article (the way links have worked since the Internet was invented), I was instead prompted to install the publisher's Facebook app. Then Facebook redesigned the implementation and publishers saw their traffic land squarely in the toilet. On December 14, the Guardian discontinued its frictionless Facebook app. Good riddance. 

Pretty soon, this pointless functionality will work with Netflix too. Oh joy!

And meanwhile, the government can continue to read through your Web-based email without a warrant. 

 

Original lead image by Kevin Dooley.