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Why Can't You use a Netflix Facebook App? It May be Illegal

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

What is the Video Privacy Protection Act and why is it standing in the way of Netflix from releasing its new Facebook Application?

The Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) dates back to the eighties, in the days of videotape. During the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Robert Bork, a reporter from the Washington City Paper convinced a video store clerk to providing him with Bork's rental history. 

 Although the rental history was quite uneventful, the release of the information sparked Congress into passing the VPPA.

The VPPA prohibits a "video tape service provider" from disclosing the "personally identifiable information" of its customers, absent written consent.

This definition was altered in 1988 to refer to "prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual materials," hence opening the law to modern day video streaming technology.

Although the definition might seem vague to some jurists, it's always better to play cautiously. As a result, the Netflix application is not available to U.S. Facebook users.

But what is so controversial about the application?

The Netflix Facebook app would do the same thing that other Facebook apps are already doing -- broadcasting user activity on outside sites. Take, for example, the Pandora app, which tells Facebook friends about the songs recently listened to by the user. Or the Huffington Post app, which informs on the articles recently read by a Facebook user.

An opt-out feature, or a specific button where a user can consent to the disclosure might be a way for Netflix to navigate the VPPA. But do opt-out provisions withstand legal scrutiny?

Consider the case of Facebook Beacon, a self-admitted "mistake" by Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook Beacon involved the partnership of Facebook with various sites. When a user visited those sites, Facebook would broadcast the user's purchase. While there was an opt-out provision, it took a Facebook-savvy person to know how to opt out. The VPPA was raised in the Beacon case. Facebook eventually terminated the Beacon program and settled the case.

Nevertheless, the Beacon case serves as a good reminder of the precarious world of Internet privacy and the fact that playing it safe is sometimes the best way to play the game.

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