The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), amends the 23-year-old Video Privacy Protection Act, which is aimed at preserving the confidentiality of people's movie-watching records. The law prohibits movie rental companies from disclosing information about customers without their consent.
Goodlatte's amendment (H.R. 2471) explicitly allows people to consent online to the disclosure of their movie-rental records. Also, the measure says that consent can be given on an ongoing basis, so Netflix wouldn't have to ask people to opt-in every time the company intends to share information.
The amendment passed this week by a vote of 303 to 116. A similar measure hasn't yet been introduced in the Senate.
Congress enacted the VPPA after a Washington newspaper obtained the video rental records of Robert Bork, who was nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The statute allows consumers to sue for up to $2,500 per violation. Netflix, which lobbied for the amendment, told shareholders in July that the VPPA was “discouraging” it from allowing people to stream movies through their Facebook accounts, or share the movies they watched with their friends.
But Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, argued in a letter to Congress that the amendment could undermine consumers' right to consent to disclosure of video-viewing records. He also said there was no reason to revise the statute. “The routine disclosure of video viewing activities is not something that most Facebook users are clamoring for,” he wrote on Monday to Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.).
“Privacy is the No. 1 concern of Internet users today. It would be foolish to adopt an amendment that weakens privacy legislation already in place,” Rotenberg added.
Both Facebook and Netflix have been sued for allegedly violating the VPPA. The case against Facebook stemmed from the 2007 Beacon program, which told users about their friends' activity on outside sites, including Blockbuster.com. Facebook agreed to resolve that case by contributing $6 million toward a new privacy foundation -- which it will partially control. Facebook hasn't yet launched the foundation because an appellate court is still reviewing the settlement.
Netflix additionally faces class-action litigation for retaining data about users' movie rental history and recommendations.