Netflix Wins Congressional Protection to go Social in US under New Law

An amendment to the 1988, Video Privacy Protection Act provides videotape services the ability to allow their customers to opt in for video rental and viewing data. Under the new legislation, companies such as Netflix, Hulu, and Crackle will be able to let their users share what they have been watching through their social media services.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

netflix1Video companies will use the new law to encourage their users to post what they are watching to their friends and family – encouraging greater viewership on that platform. Netflix already provides this option on its European platform, but concerns over the reach of the Video Privacy Protection Act limited the company’s use of social media in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Hulu lost a claim in which it argued the Video Privacy Protection Act did not extend to online content suppliers. The California District Court hearing the case disagreed, stating “a plain reading of a statute that covers videotapes and “similar audio visual materials” is about the video content, not about how that content was delivered (e.g. via the Internet or a bricks-and-mortar store).” The decision to allow the class action against Hulu to proceed (and a settlement by Netflix in a similar situation) set the stage for legislative action.

The law was originally enacted in response to the disclosure of Supreme Court Nominee Robert Bork’s videotape records. The law extended similar protections for library records. (The American Library Association reports that 48 of the 50 states have such statutes.) In addition to the federal law, many states also have laws protecting rental and viewership records, so compliance at the state level may somewhat deter the roll-out of the automated “frictionless sharing” of viewership data.

At the heart of the privacy rules stand a constitutional assertion that free speech often starts with unmonitored access to information. The freedom to read divergent, controversial, or even antisocial and seditious materials is essential to develop an open, robust and unfettered political debate. To punish a person merely for accessing controversial content will ultimately stifle expression, creating a far greater evil than the content being discouraged.

Perhaps because this form of privacy is rooted in First Amendment protections, it was the one privacy rule in which U.S. residents had greater legal protections than their European counterparts.

The law provides consumers the ability to withdraw consent at any time. Nonetheless, expect to see a great many status updates about your acquaintances’ viewing habits by the end of the year. Opting out of those might not be as easy.