Poor Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX). On top of its other problems, an arcane law is spoiling its chance to participate in a new form of Facebook fun that lets users live-share their media experiences. The company is now renewing its push for Congress to revoke the law.
Netflix issued two blog posts yesterday urging people to support a bill repealing the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), a quirky pre-digital law that prevents the company from sharing live information about what its subscribers are watching. The posts coincided with the hoopla surrounding yesterday’s news that Facebook plans to become an entertainment hub. Here is what Netflix hopes to accomplish:
The Netflix/Facebook integration empowers you as a Netflix member to share what you watch from Netflix with your friends on Facebook and to discover what your friends are watching both on Facebook and within the Netflix user interface. This makes it easier and more fun to find new television series and movies to watch.
But the VPPA means that Netflix will have to watch from the sidelines as music apps like Spotify and Clear Channel (OTCBB: CCMO) hop on to Facebook’s platform. As Joe Mullin explained in a smart piece this summer, the current law imposes strict fines on any company that shares someone’s video rental history without receiving that person’s consent.
Congress passed the law as a privacy measure in response to a Washington newspaper’s decision to publish the video rental history of a nominee to the Supreme Court. (Strangely, that nominee was Robert Bork and not Justice Clarence Thomas whose taste in movies gave rise to a moment of Senatorial infamy when, during confirmation hearings, he was asked by Sen. Orrin Hatch, “Did you ever use the term Long Dong Silver.”)
Today, the law is an anachronism but one which is tripping up Netflix because it requires companies that rent movies to obtain consent from a customer at the same time that they share their information. This means that Netflix faces the wildly impractical task of having to obtain permission every single time it plans to update a newsfeed describing who is watching what movie.
The VPPA applies only to Netflix’s American subscribers, leaving the company free to roll out its plan in Canada and Latin America.
It is not clear how popular Netflix’s proposed Facebook feature will be with viewers. I for one am relieved that, for now at least, no one will know if I choose to spend my weekends curled up with an Ally McBeal marathon.