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Can the law keep you from telling your friends what movies you have seen? If you want to do so online, it turns out that the law can make it harder than need be.
The Video Privacy Protection Act was passed in 1988 in the wake of the publication of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental records. Members of Congress, worrying about their own records, rushed to put in place a bill that would block companies from sharing video rentals without express written permission.
Who would have thought that a couple of decades later, hundreds of millions of Facebook users would be sharing with their friends everything from their lunch menus to the details of the next revolution.
But the one thing they can’t do is click to tell Netflix or other video rental services to share their movie-watching habits with their pals because of the requirement for a written notice.
A proposed modernization of the current law, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) would allow consumers to electronically authorize Netflix to share information with their friends, requiring their express consent.
What’s the big deal?
Well it turns out that one of the most powerful ways consumers today discover online content is by learning about it online from their friends using social media. Once the province solely of search engines, today’s consumer finds news, videos, music and more by seeing what their friends are sharing on Facebook and other online social networks.
In fact, an entire app economy supporting thousands of new jobs has been able to develop because apps were shared from user to user on Facebook. The new music service Spotify has signed up millions of users in a matter of weeks by enabling them to easily let friends know the tunes they are listening to.
But this is not the case for the Netflix community or for users of other video rental services. If you want to tell Netflix to share the flicks you are streaming, you need to find pen and paper and pay for a stamp; unless of course you live anywhere outside the United States, in which case you can click to share to your heart’s content.
As a privacy group, we would be quite concerned about a law that would make it easy for businesses to share your video streams without your permission or with any kind of “opt-out” option that consumers could very easily miss. Forgetting to click “no” and inadvertently sharing with your pals that you are a sucker for romance movies is the least of the embarrassments you could face.
But as much as we don’t want people to accidentally share, we don’t want them to be restricted from sharing when they expressly make it clear that they want to do so and fully understand their actions.
The antiquated law on the books is a hindrance to consumers and to the viral business models that have powered much of the recent technology economy.
Congress should act to update the outdated Video Privacy Protection Act to enable online consumers to approve the sharing of their video activity when they clearly and expressly indicate they wish to do so.
To the digital citizen of this decade, online privacy means having control over what is private and what is made public.
Jules Polonetsky is director and co-chairman of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Christopher Wolf is co-chairman of the Future of Privacy Forum.