One of the quirks of digital movie rentals has been a legal impediment that prevented Netflix from integrating with Facebook and other social media sites. The challenge Netflix faced was a law, the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, but known informally as “Bork’s Law” because it was passed in the wake of Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination process. During the confirmation hearings, the Washington DC City Paper, an alternative weekly, obtained Bork’s movie rental records and published an article about them. Although his movie choices were relatively innocuous, it was rightfully seen as an invasion of privacy, and Bork’s Law was passed as a result. The result of that law was that Netflix was reluctant to create a Facebook app that would automatically post someone’s video rental or viewing activity.
Now, after several years of lobbying, the Senate has passed a bill creating an exception to this privacy loophole. According to Ars Technica the bill clarifies two areas of concern that Netflix faced. First, it makes clear that consent for sharing rental histories can be conducted over the Internet. Previously, this required written consent. Second, consent can be given for up to two years, rather than on a case-by-case basis. So, it’s probably safe to expect that Netflix will have a Facebook app in place relatively soon, opening up the potential that you will be alerted every time one of your friends binge watches an episode of Breaking Bad.
That said, if I remember correctly, the Facebook app would also allow Netflix to individualize accounts even further, especially given the practice of shared accounts. My tastes are obviously quite a bit different than other members of my family, which would mean that if I were to integrate Netflix and Facebook, I’d want to avoid broadcasting what they watched using a household account in my name. People already have a number of mechanisms for social sharing–GetGlue, Miso, etc–and typically volunteer this information when they want to share it. Social media is already the new “water cooler” for talking about TV and movies, so integrating something automatic seems likely to capture only a narrow group of users. In addition, given the continued ambiguities about privacy–expressed in part through the Facebook memes where people ask you to make their status updates private–suggest that many Netflix and Facebook users will opt out of this frictionless form of sharing (there’s actually quite a bit of research that supports this notion).
The bill still hasn’t been signed by President Obama, so there is still a ways to go before it becomes law. It seems like a reasonable update, as long as people are able to protect their privacy, but I think it also opens up the possibility for Netflix to engage in even more individualized forms of media recommendations.