As privacy on Facebook takes the headlines once again, music matchmaking service Pandora is being prodded over its privacy policies, too.  Although this class action case involves violations of Michigan statutes, federal law is also relevant to the broader question of who may glimpse through the “window into our loves, likes, and dislikes.”

The federal Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 (codified at 18 U.S.C.A. section 2710) permits states to enact broader disclosure prohibitions.  Michigan’s Video Rental Privacy Act (“MVRPA”) generally prohibits providers of books, sound recordings, or video recordings from disclosing information concerning a customer’s purchase, lease, rental, or borrowing of those materials that indicates the identity of the customer.  The MVRPA has an exception for direct marketing to the customer, but the service must disclose to the customer that the customer may remove his or her name.

Currently, a Pandora user’s profile page displays to the public the username, a daily history of tracks played, the stations the user created, and the users’ likes and bookmarks.  The plaintiffs allege that Pandora’s unilateral integration with Facebook resulted in the public exposure of Pandora profiles in association with users’ real names listed on Facebook, despite users’ attempts to remain anonymous by using pseudonymous e-mail addresses and/or usernames.

Pandora’s current Privacy Policy permits the public disclosure of listening activity, meaning the customers give written permission for the disclosure and that the disclosure is, thus, legal under the MVRPA.  Nevertheless, the plaintiffs allege that the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy in place at the time Pandora began publicly sharing user information differed.  Allegedly, it allowed only Pandora registrants who knew another user’s e-mail address to locate and view that user’s listening activity.

Netflix is facing a similar legal battle, and other content providers continue to integrate with Facebook.  I can see the last track my friend listened to on MOG by looking at her Facebook page, and I am too scared to “Connect to Facebook” through Spotify.  I may be proud of my stellar musical taste, but given Facebook’s live newsfeed, I am not thrilled at the prospect of my friends and acquaintances knowing exactly when I’m rocking out to my “running” playlist or listening to “Jolene” on repeat.  On the other hand, social integration allows content providers to capitalize on network externalities, adds value for users, and provides endorsements from trustworthy sources–your friends!–for content owners.

Will services listen to their users’ pleas for privacy, or should the law curb the continual pushing of the privacy envelope?  Will users alter their behavior in the face of feared public scrutiny?  Will they adapt to and eventually accept the diminishing possibility of anonymity?

Kelly Donley

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6 Responses to Closing Pandora’s “window into our loves, likes, and dislikes”

  1. Kelly Donley says:

    Thank you for your comments! Just for your information, included below is an excerpt from Spotify’s Terms and Conditions of Use, as of this morning.

    “If you have connected your Spotify account to Facebook and have agreed to share information about the music you are playing to Facebook Spotify will share every song you play to Facebook If have chosen to share to Facebook and you choose to publish a playlist, your playlist information will also be shared to Facebook. If you have not chosen to share to Facebook and you choose to publish a playlist, your playlist information will be publicly available to other Spotify users via the Spotify Software Application but not shared to Facebook. You can choose to disable automatic publishing of new playlists in the preferences pane. Information shared to Facebook will be attributed to the Facebook account to which your Spotify account is connected. Facebook’s use of such information is governed by Facebook’s privacy policy and Spotify’s use of such information is governed by this Spotify Privacy Policy. You understand and agree that you need to consult both privacy policies to amend or delete personal information which has been provided to Facebook. If you do not wish for such use of your personal data to take place, you should not agree to share information about the music you play to Facebook and/or adjust your settings to deactivate such sharing.”

    It popped up this morning, requiring a response before I could use Spotify. I am glad to see that they are providing some arguably direct notice to their users about their terms!

  2. Sophia Behnia says:

    I have no idea. My only point was that there could be such songs, and either way, there should be some recourse.

  3. Kevin Lumpkin says:

    There are songs about autoerotic asphyxiation? And they’re on Pandora? Maybe I’m just not as well-schooled in fringe music culture as others; I can’t really imagine a song that I know or have heard of that would tend to disclose especially sensitive information about the listener. In contrast, I can imagine plenty of books and movies that would disclose a ton about their readers and viewers.

    I wonder what it is the plaintiff was listening to in this case that he didn’t want anyone to know about. My guess is nothing, because he’s seeking statutory damages (set at $5,000/person regardless of a showing of harm). If he had real damages that flowed from disclosure of his listening history, he would probably seek them.

  4. Sophia Behnia says:

    Awesome post Kelly! Like you and Megan, I do not share the music I’m listening to on Facebook. It’s good that Spotify lets us make that decision, I think that is most important. It seems as though Pandora isn’t really doing that, or at least, users allow for disclosure, but they don’t really know they are doing so.

    Also, I think music has a ton of subject matter! Kevin – what would you think if Joe listened to a song about autoerotic asphyxiation?

  5. Megan says:

    Great post! I am also someone who resists connecting to Facebook on Spotify– I am less sure that my musical tastes are stellar and wouldn’t want them to be broadcast to all my friends!

    On the other hand, I think you make a great point that this sort of social network connection makes it easier for you as a listener to find new music as you see what your friends are listening to.

    And I have to disagree with Kevin, above. I think music can have a subject matter, in some cases, like books or movies– just on a different scale.

  6. Kevin Lumpkin says:

    Can anyone really argue with a straight face that the Michigan legislature was imagining something like Pandora when it passed this law? I can easily see categories of books and movies whose viewers are worth protecting, but music doesn’t have subject matter like books and movies do. Is disclosure that Joe likes to listen to 98 Degrees really the same as disclosure that Joe reads about autoerotic asphyxiation?