Netflix wants to amend Video Privacy Protection Act

Netflix, the online movie service, is backing legislation in Congress that would allow it to disclose a client’s private movie and television viewing information to social media websites.

If successful, the effort would amend the Video Privacy Protection Act. That law, passed in 1988, requires a video services company to get a customer’s written consent when it seeks to disclose his or her personal information, including rental history.

A version of the legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week with little debate. That measure would allow users to give one-time blanket consent online for a company to share their viewing habits continuously. The fact the legislation has not been highly controversial shows how social networking has already made such personal sharing standard operating procedure for many online users.

“It really is meant to empower the consumer to be able to share with their friends,” David Hyman, the general counsel of Netflix, told The New York Times. The legislation, he argued, simply updates an “outmoded law” so that it matches the way we live now.

Privacy experts, however, told The New York Times that Netflix wants Congress to dismantle “a gold standard” among privacy laws. The legislation, they said, diminishes a person’s ability to select what to share — and with whom — on a case-by-case basis. If the Senate passes the legislation as currently written, the revised law, they said, would undermine consumers’ control over information collected about them even as it empowers companies to create and share more detailed customer profiles.

“They are not trying to modernize the law,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The New York Times. “They are trying to gut the law.”

At stake, Rotenberg said, is not just the sharing of a person’s video viewing history, but the larger issue of meaningful consent.

Some members of Congress complained that proponents of the bill rushed it through the House without a hearing or a full-scale debate. The bill, now that it’s meaning is better known, is likely to face tougher scrutiny in the Senate.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), chairman of the privacy, technology and law subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is set to hold a hearing on the legislation early in 2012. It is possible the Senate may choose to strengthen the current law by extending it to cover online streaming and not just physical video rentals.