Senate Approves Legislation To Loosen Video Privacy Laws So You Can Sneer at Your Friends’ Netflix Picks

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 21 2012 4:18 PM

Senate Approves Legislation To Loosen Video Privacy Laws So You Can Sneer at Your Friends’ Netflix Picks

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Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

On Thursday, just one day after Judge Robert Bork died, the Senate voted in favor of relaxing legislation passed in the wake of his intense confirmation hearings. Assuming the president signs the amended version of the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was approved by the House earlier this week, it will soon be easier for Netflix and other online video purveyors to connect to your social media profiles.

For years, Netflix had a feature that allowed you to peek at the queues of friends. (It was called, of course, “Friends.”) As Sam Kean discussed in Slate in 2006, this was problematic: It alerted you to the terrible taste of those you previously respected. Some of his friends, he wrote, “had given perfect ratings to productions as various as Deliverance, Pretty in Pink, Edward Scissorhands, Madonna: Truth or Dare, and Xena: Warrior Princess (Season 3). Who were these people, I wondered, and what kinds of unholy amalgamations were their movie tastes?” In part because people don’t really enjoy being judged, one assumes, less than 2 percent of subscribers were using Friends when Netflix killed it in 2010.

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But Netflix never gave up on the idea of subscribers peeking at one another’s picks. The company has long wanted to take advantage of “frictionless sharing,” in which your activity on one site is automatically posted on, say, your Facebook wall. Frictionless sharing already used widely by news organizations (like the Washington Post’s Social Reader) and other sites. Though plenty of people (including Farhad Manjoo) hate it, Netflix has been keen to get in on the action—but federal law has kept the site a mercifully frictionless-sharing-free zone.

That’s because during Bork’s failed confirmation, a Washington City Paper reporter named Michael Dolan talked a video rental store clerk into giving him the jurist’s account records. There was nothing particularly interesting there: As Dolan recalled in the New Republic yesterday, “Bork enjoyed whodunits and Brit films, costume drama and otherwise; he and his hadn't rented anything remotely salacious enough to rankle patron Reagan's buds in the Moral Majority.” But legislators were horrified (presumably, more-rankling titles lurked in their own rental histories), so in 1988 they passed the Video Privacy Protection Act to prevent anyone from disclosing what titles you had checked out.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

Though Hulu has argued that the VPAA does not apply to online video, Netflix took a more cautious approach and lobbied for the law to be updated. With the Senate vote, Netflix comes much closer to implementing frictionless sharing, as it has already done for subscribers outside of the United States.

Netflix says that updating the VPAA will give “consumers more freedom to share with friends when they want.” But as soon as it launches, I know I’ll use the tightest security options available. Because I want the freedom to watch a bad movie without my friends knowing it.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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