Wednesday, November 28, 2012

H.R. 2471 and How Federal Law Discriminates Against Netflix...

Whenever you login to Facebook, your feed is likely to have all sorts of social media advertisements from your friends - what songs they're currently listening to on Spotify, which newspaper articles they recently read in the Washington Post, which products or companies they "Like", which iPhone apps they started using, what new high scores they achieved on SongPop or other gaming sites, etc. 

One thing you won't see, however, is which Netflix movies they've rented or are instantly streaming.

Why?  There's an outdated federal law named the Video Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1988, that forbids a person's video rental history from being made public unless consent is given on a rental-by-rental basis.  So, whereas I can give Spotify permission to share my song selections on Facebook, I cannot give permission to Netflix to do the same for my video selections, even if I want to.

Where is the sense in this?  Even if you're a staunch privacy advocate and you take issue with people's media consumption being shared publicly by these services - which is a valid argument to make - you'd still be pretty hard-pressed to explain the difference between Netflix doing it is versus Spotify and others doing, what seems to be, exactly the same thing.  The law is unfairly discriminating against online video services as compared to other forms of media. 

I bring this up as a timely issue because a bill is coming up before the Senate this week (H.R. 2471) which seeks to rectify the problem and update the 1988 law so that video service providers "may obtain a consumer's informed, written consent on an ongoing basis and that consent may be obtained through the Internet".  The bill has already been passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support, 303-116.

The counterarguments being made against H.R. 2471 focus on protecting consumer privacy (certainly a noble cause dear to my heart), but this is a case of online privacy protection done right.  Consumers have to actively opt-in to sharing, and they can later opt-out at any time.  That's hardly invasive, and in this digital age, it's even better than the norm.

Yes, I instinctively cringe when reading that Netflix spent $200,000 lobbying for this bill last year, and I was admittedly cynical when reading the Politico op-ed piece by the company's head of global policy, Christopher Libertelli, so publicly advocating for the measure.

Nevertheless, the logic behind H.R. 2471 is there.



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