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Last Thursday, President Obama signed a bill allowing Facebook and other social media users to choose to automatically share the videos they have watched on sites like Netflix.

Facebookers could already share playlists, articles, and other web activities, but the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) banned the sharing of any video history information (in the absence of written consent by the consumer for each video or a warrant from the police.)

An outraged Congress passed the VPPA in 1988.  The legislative action was in response to the publication of innocuous video rentals made by Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork during his heated nomination process.  Since this was widely seen as an invasion of privacy, Congress enacted the VPPA to limit how much people can share about their video rental and viewing history.

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Twenty-five years later, however, the VPPA kept Facebook from providing its “frictionless sharing” to U.S. Netflix users.  With the threat of a VPPA violation looming, Netflix did not extend all of its features to its U.S. users.  Netflix users outside the United States, specifically those in Canada, the U.K., and Latin America, already have the option to link their accounts with Facebook.

For over two years, Netflix and other companies have fought VPPA enforcement by calling the law dated and pointing to the silliness of attaining written consent for each video viewed.  In the interim, Netflix has a Facebook “app” that U.S. users can access through the Facebook App Center.  It shows screenshots of the ability to share Netflix recommendations on Facebook, but when accessed it merely redirects to Netflix’s website.

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Last year, a Netflix competitor took matters into its own hands.  Hulu introduced an app that allowed users to share their video-watching activity on Facebook despite the VPPA.  Hulu users filed a VPPA class action but the company claimed it only disclosed personal information in its “ordinary course of . . . business.”  However, a California district court clarified that the VPPA applied to video service companies like Hulu.  And so, Netflix, Hulu, and the like had to rely on Congressional amendments.

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The House and Senate approved H.R. 6671, the Video Privacy Protection Act Amendments Act, late last year without objection but the Senate version had considerable recommendations.  The bill from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), approved by President Obama, now requires services like Netflix to obtain explicit consent for the sharing of video-watching history on outside sites like Facebook.

The bill’s main provisions state: 1.) consent for sharing video-watching history can be granted online; and, 2.) consent can be given for up to two years and is not necessary to be renewed for each video viewed.  Since the consent must be explicit, users will be directed to permission menus.  These permission-based menus must be separate from other menus on the site, such as the terms of service or privacy rules.  They cannot be in “fine print,” and consumers will be allowed to withdraw consent for sharing at any time, on a case-by-case basis or altogether.

The bill comes to the President’s desk after unanimously passing through the Senate on Dec. 20.  Although the bill was a bipartisan effort, some have criticized the law since a heightened e-mail search warrant provision was dropped from the legislation.  Still, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) released a statement saying that he believed the law “sets the stage” for Congress to take up his email privacy bill next year.

In the meantime, Netflix has announced that it will utilize social sharing features in 2013.

–Amanda Nguyen

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3 Responses to Social Sharing: The VPPA, Online Video Streaming, & Facebook

  1. Amanda Nguyen says:

    Erin and John, I would agree that privacy issues are much more pressing. Nonetheless, I did find it odd that friends/followers were allowed to track your Spotify account or see what you read on the WSJ but not the videos you watch. And of course, there’s an odd law that required it to be so, the VPPA. While I’m not opposed to freeing sharing abilities, I wish the focus was on privacy. I was far more interested in the parts of the bill that were eliminated, namely the e-mail search warrant language.

  2. John Lomascolo says:

    Erin, you are not in the minority. I agree that privacy should be more important than increased sharing, and I think provisions like this are completely unnecessary. If someone wants to share a video that they watched, they can simply post it on their wall, post it on their friend’s wall, or send it to their friend(s) in a message. Making sharing even more easy, and requiring less thought in the process will just infringe the privacy rights of people who may be in online videos, but did not want them, or did not know that they were online. Congress should be making laws that increase people’s online privacy instead of bills like this.

  3. Erin Frankrone says:

    It’s developments like this that fuel my animosity towards Facebook. I have never seen the appeal of constant and wide-spread personal sharing. I feel very much in the minority because I find that Facebook and other social sites allow sharing, rather than privacy, to be the default setting. I recognize that privacy controls accompnay most pro-sharing developments, but I often find myself required to take the extra step to keep my information private, not vice-versa. Frequently, I find my privacy settings with respect to new developments have been low for days without my express approval because I am an infrequent Facebook user. While the ability to later update privacy settings still makes excess sharing “voluntary,” privacy should be the default.