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Netflix, Facebook and the law

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Debra Aho Williamson from eMarketer says social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are already transforming how many of us watch television. She points out that this year, millions watched the royal wedding on the tube while simultaneously talking on Twitter and Facebook about all those ridiculous hats.

Williamson says for many, sharing what they watch enriches their experience. And she says the service could make Netflix’s recommendations much better. After all, whose taste do you trust more, a friend’s or Netflix’s movie recommendation algorithm?

Hulu and YouTube already offer to stream information about what we watch in real-time to our friends on Facebook, but the Video Privacy Protection Act complicates the issue for Netflix. Before Netflix can share information about movies you are renting, the VPPA requires it to get its customers written consent. Obviously, in the Internet age, “written consent” is a problem. Plus, the law says Netflix would have to get consent each and every time it discloses information about what someone rented — just a hassle no one wants.

Ryan Calo runs the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford University Law School. He calls the Video Privacy Protection Act an “accident of history.” It was passed shortly after a movie rental store in Washington D.C. leaked the video rental records of former Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork. Congress was outraged, so today, video rental records are afforded greater legal protections than lots of other information companies collect about you.

Calo says while he thinks that the VPPA needs to be updated for the Internet age, scrapping the law entirely would be a huge mistake. Instead, he says, it’s a wonderful model of how law can put consumers in control of their own personal information.

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