Nareen Melkonian
Feb 3, 2012

Frictionless sharing inequality: Spotify and the Washington Post can, but Netflix cannot?

Matt Brown went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last weekend. He just added Nicholas Felton as a friend because they work together at Facebook. Apparently, he likes In-N-Out since he ordered well-done fries when he was there with his friend Tom Watson a couple weeks ago. He likes mountain biking and Christopher Walken, among other things. He visited three neighborhoods in San Francisco that I am pretty familiar with. He definitely runs more than I do, precisely 3.61 miles.

The movies he watched on Hulu recently, Supersize Me and Exit Through the Gift Shop, are not so much my style. But the books he’s been reading through Kobo, such as Filmmaking for Dummies, Playing With Fire, and Bicycle: Love Poems, are more in my groove. He seems to love Keegan DeWitt’s “Thunder Clatter” song considering he’s played it 47 times already. Aside from his birthday, his relationship status, his networks, his email address, and his religious views, these are all the things I could know about Matt Brown if he was my friend on Facebook. Of course, the reason I know all this information anyway is because it is all part of Facebook’s advertisement of their new Timeline application.

Although Netflix is currently part of this information-flowing, privacy-defying public platform, they face some serious problems due to an act that was passed 24 years ago. The 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) states that no video company can release a renter’s or buyer’s purchase history without their consent on each individual item. On Tuesday, January 31, US Sen. Al Franken, Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, held a hearing to discuss the revision and modernization of the VPPA in order to continue to protect the privacy of advanced consumers, who use web-based video services such as Netflix. A recent bill added to this Act by the House of Representatives does in fact require such companies to obtain customer authorization when they sign up; however, the bill has not yet been enacted because the Senate argues that consumers should be warned and asked every single time their action is being posted as oppose to a one-time blanket consent as the bill suggests.

During the hearing, Sen. Franken said, “If someone wants to share what they watch, I want them to be able to do so, but I want to make sure that consumers have the right to easily control who finds out what they watch -- and who doesn’t. The Video Privacy Protection Act guarantees them that right. I want to make sure we protect that right for another quarter of a century.” While Netflix agrees that they should and already do get a customer’s consent to publicize their viewing history via that customer’s social networks, they do not confirm with the customer for each separate incident as the Senate sees fit.

I know what you’re thinking. Redundant? Unnecessarily complicated? All the other websites do it? Spotify posts what songs you listen to, Washington Post shows what articles you read, Living Social posts all the stuff you buy, Kobo shows what books you read and so on. What makes a video or DVD different? Well, when Robert Bork was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1987, the Washington City Paper got a hold of his rental records from a local Washington D.C. video store and published them. Although nothing offensive was revealed, this was a violation of his privacy and something needed to happen, hence, the VPPA. So, I suppose if his record of book rentals or CD purchases happened to be revealed as well, then we’d have a law for their protection too. The Senators advocating for the utmost safe and private practices no doubt have good reasoning and intentions. However, it makes absolutely no sense to restrict one distributor and not the others, which are in the exact same playing field.

Even Google recently changed their privacy policy and will implement it on March 1. Any time you’re logged on with your username, Google will track and record all your searches in order to, according to them, allow you to “find useful information more quickly” and target you with ads more relevant to your interests. How is that any less a violation of privacy than seeing what movies you watch? Where does any of this leave the Patriot Act, which was signed into law in 2001? Law enforcement agencies need warrants and subpoenas to search and gather any type of personal records, but social networking sites and internet companies do not? It all seems a little hazy.

Nonetheless, the people’s privacy is the people’s privacy. So if this new era of social networking and internet consumption is what the people want, then it is their right to choose respective privacy settings. However, the legal options for one website should be the same legal options for another. So if Matt Brown wants us to know every detail of his everyday life, from jogs to books to music to food, then he should be able to tell us what movies he’s been renting from Netflix as well.