Leahy Proposes Revising Privacy Law To Enable Netflix-Facebook Integration

The lawmaker who originally authored the 24-year-old federal Video Privacy Protection Act now supports changing the law to allow Facebook and Netflix to integrate in the U.S.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) this week proposed amending the federal video privacy law to enable consumers to consent on an ongoing basis to the disclosure of information about their movie rentals. Leahy made the proposal as an amendment to a controversial Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (S. 3414), The Hill reported today.

That bill is expected to generate considerable debate. But even if the cybersecurity bill doesn't go through, Leahy's move indicates that the lawmaker agrees with Netflix that the law should be changed; that position marks a departure from earlier this year, when Leahy said at a Senate panel hearing that changing the VPPA “doesn't seem like the best course for consumers."

The law currently bans movie rental companies from sharing information about the videos people watch without their express written consent. Many observers believe that consent must be obtained by movie rental companies on a movie-by-movie basis.

Leahy's amendment would specify that people can consent in advance to the disclosure of information about the movies they watch by movie rental companies. But the measure also requires companies to tell consumers how to withdraw their consent -- either for particular movies or more permanently.

Netflix says it's lobbying for the revision in order to enable people to stream films from their Facebook accounts. Netflix and Facebook also want to spread the titles of movies people watch to their social contacts.

The House recently  voted in favor of an amendment that would allow Netflix (and other video companies) to secure users' consent to disclosure on an ongoing basis.

But not everyone believes that a change in law is necessary for a Netflix-Facebook integration. University of Minnesota law professor Bill McGeveran testified to 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.

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. 

Both Facebook and Netflix have been sued for allegedly violating the law. The case against Facebook stemmed from the 2007 Beacon program, which told users about their friends' activity on outside sites, including

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.

In a separate case, Netflix recently agreed to pay $9 million and to change its data retention practices in order to settle a lawsuit alleging that it unlawfully retained information about users' movie rental history and recommendations.

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