Watch Out! New Video Law Lets Netflix Share What You're Viewing

It passed the House, the Senate, and just before the new year, the President signed it into law. In a significant shift in video privacy - online video rental companies can now share information about the movies you rent or buy. As you might expect, things are about to get more social.

According to the new law, companies have to ask only once. You can opt out, but if you don't, say goodbye to the rights to your video data for two full years. As per the change, Netflix will introduce new social features that basically link users' Netflix and Facebook accounts and share their viewing history with friends. Netflix was previously unable to do this in the U.S. by the 25-year-old Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which banned the sharing of personal data for anything but law enforcement purposes (even now, Hulu remains in court for previously sharing viewers' info). 

On the surface, sharing viewing history may not seem like a big deal, but the law undermines the privacy of Internet users, and takes away user control over significant amounts of potentially sensitive personal data. 

Looking back, it's ironic this new law even passed, as the VPPA was originally enacted in the 1980s in response to a local Washington newspaper publishing a list of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's rented videotapes during his nomination process. At that time, Congress was up in arms over this privacy breach, which helped scuttle Bork's appointment and led to the phrase "borked" entering the language. But less than a month after Bork's passing on December 19, 2012, it seems that Netflix investment of roughly half a million dollars in lobbying Congress to update the law was enough to do the trick. 

The Privacy Issue

Almost one year ago to the day, Marc Rotenberg, the executive director and president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), testified in Congress against the bill, citing his organization's interest in "supporting the rights of Internet users to control the disclosure of their data held by private companies."

"The debate over online privacy and Netflix does not exist in a vacuum," Rotenberg stated at the hearing. "It is becoming increasingly clear that only privacy laws actually safeguard the privacy rights of Internet users."

In an interview with ReadWrite, Rotenberg said he urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to update the law with new safeguards. His warnings were not heeded. "Senator Franken (D-Minn.) and Senator Feinstein (D-Calif.) made some improvements to the House bill but it was still a step backward for online privacy," Rotenberg said. 

So...is sharing bad for online privacy? The experts ReadWrite talked to seemed to think so.

Jules Polonetsky, the director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, said the the real issue is that people don't know they're sharing. When that sharing is done without user consent and system settings are unclear, it's bad for the public. "This is about the sharing of your records of video rental history, as opposed to on a clear, permission basis, enabling people to key-in sharing mode," he said. "Sharing should be in a clear opt-in basis."

Polonetsky compares the risk to what social video sites Viddy and Socialcam did when they first launched, gaming the Facebook system so anyone playing those companies' videos automatically alerted their Facebook friends to what they were watching. That accidental sharing is a major problem, Polonetsky warned.

"I saw a rabbi I know sharing a fairly raunchy video about girls on bikes, falling off bikes... a conservative, corporate lawyer sharing a somewhat offensive video, none of them clearly understanding that by clicking on some filthy link shared by their friends, to see what the attraction was, they'd be letting hundreds of their friends know and sullying their reputation."  

Rainey Reitman, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's activism director agreed. She said the move is bad for the public because unclear sharing undermines the "strong legal protections put in place to protect video watchers... A major concern is that individuals will enable the function and not realize that it is continuing to broadcast their video watching habits to social networks - for years."

Selling Your Video History?

Another potential problem stemming from the law, Reitman said, is whether video companies will use that information as a commodity and sell it. "Once data is combined with our social media profiles, it can be part of the data used by the online advertising industry for advertising purposes and we'll be forced to rely on the often confusing privacy settings on social networks to protect our video watching history."

Polonetsky said that turning on this stream of sharing data on a service like Facebook would likely increase targeted ads. He added that although this change tot he law has been pushed by Netflix, not Facebook, social sharing is a huge business driver, and ultimately a win for that site. 

"Generally [Facebook's] motto has been, we want a lot of data so advertisers can reach you," he said. "Facebook can and will make available what you're doing, what you're watching, what you're reading, to be used to tailor ads to you on Facebook - and increasingly off of Facebook."

Not All Bad?

The new law is not all bad, said Polonetsky. When it comes to sharing information people do want known, like live Television, sports and films while they tweet or post, it can be a boon for both users and entertainment companies. But it's only positive if people have an on-off switch, and awareness of what they're sharing.

"If you can actually draw together the eyes now watching this video, this game, and comment, I think there's a real positive," he said. Still, he warned that the way the new systems get set up will be critical to the law's long term effects. Again, the key is that people have to know the settings in order for the sharing to benefit them and not inadvertently spread information they'd rather keep to themselves. "It's got to be cut in a way that very affirmatively makes clear that you are in sharing mode so there's no cause for accidents. That's UI design."

Polonetsky isn't the only one who sees the glass half full. Privacy expert and attorney Alan Chapell of Chapell & Associates thinks the old VPPA law was out of date. He pointed to the fact that the law treated the video differently from other content, such as music services like Spotify, which are able to share. 

"The VPPA created a rule set that treated movie consumption differently from book and music consumption," he said. "Drawing that type of distinction in a digital world doesn't make sense. If a consumer wants to be able to tell friends, via Facebook or some other platform, which movies he's streamed via Netflix he should be able to do so."

Chapell is right, people should have the right to share when they want to do so. But the underlying issue is that this new law creates a system where the public could easily end up sharing personal data without their informed consent. 

 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.