A Senate panel voted on Thursday to revise a privacy law in a way that will enable Netflix to integrate with Facebook.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved amending the Video Privacy Protection Act to allow consumers to consent in advance to the disclosure of information about which movies they watch. People can withdraw consent at any time, but even if they don't, the consent will expire automatically after two years.
Currently, the federal Video Privacy Protection Act bans movie rental companies from sharing people's video viewing records without their express written consent. The law was passed in 1988, after Washington newspaper obtained and published the video rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
Many observers believe that the current law requires companies to obtain consumers' consent on a movie-by-movie basis. Netflix, which has lobbied for the revision, has long argued that it's too risky to integrate with Facebook without the revision. The companies want to let people stream films from their Facebook accounts and automatically spread news about which movies people watch to their friends.
Netflix has been sued more than once in recent years for allegedly violating the VPPA, so it's understandable that the company would be somewhat wary. But not all experts believe that a change in law is needed. University of Minnesota law professor Bill McGeveran testified at a Senate panel in January that Netflix could simply offer Facebook users a “play and share” button. If users click on that button, the company could then spread information about users' movie selections to their friends on a per-occasion basis.
McGeveran had also proposed that if the law was amended, companies should only be able to obtain ongoing consent for a six-month period.
The VPPA revision was packaged with a proposal to overhaul to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act by requiring law enforcement authorities to obtain search warrants before accessing emails or other data stored in the cloud. Currently, officials only need a search warrant for emails in storage for less than 180 days. Older emails can be accessed with subpoenas -- which are easier for law enforcement to obtain than search warrants.
That amendment -- long sought by privacy advocates -- also cleared the Senate panel.
Both of the updates were authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Al Franken (D-Mn.) sponsored the amendment to limit consent to two years.
The full Senate is expected to take up the measures next year.