Facebook knows what you watched last summer

Laws protecting the privacy of the videos you rent may soon become moot, if Facebook and Netflix have their way. Be prepared to share.

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At this moment my colleague Mike is listening to Ween on Spotify. My friend Serena is reading about Alec Baldwin’s fight with American Airlines on the Washington Post. My brother-in-law Phil is kvelling over Flipboard for the iPhone.

Thanks to Facebook’s “frictionless sharing,” I know all kinds of things about what my friends and relatives are doing at any given moment. One thing I don’t know, though, is what movies they’re watching online.

The reason is thanks to one of the rare US privacy laws on the books, and one of the weirdest: The Video Privacy Protection Act. But it won’t be for long, if Facebook and Netflix have their way.

The Video Rental Protection Act of 1988 was passed after enterprising reporters at the Washington City Paper did a dumpster dive on the contents of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s trash. (Which, by the way, is perfectly legal, though probably disgusting.) They were looking at his video rental receipts, in an apparent effort to see if the judge was in the habit of renting XXX movies. Turns out he was a big fan of Disney films.

When news of their snooping was revealed during Bork’s unsuccessful confirmation hearings, Congress reacted as only Congress can – by passing a stern-sounding but extremely narrow law with instant public appeal. From that day until now, video store chains have been forbidden from revealing the names of movies you have rented. They can’t go to prison for that, but they could get sued.

Now press the fast forward button for 23 years. VHS has been replaced by DVD, which has been replaced (mostly) by streaming. The videos you rent are still protected – but not for long. Yesterday the House passed HR 2471, a bill amending the VPPA that allows movie rental/streaming services to reveal the films you’ve watched, assuming you’ve given your informed written consent –  which can be obtained over the Net.

In other words, by clicking Allow on Facebook, you could agree to let all your peeps know that you just watched “Hello Sister, Goodbye Life” on Netflix. Why you would want to do this, I don’t know.

Given the margin by which this 59-word snippet of law passed (303 to 116), I can’t see it getting massive opposition in the Senate or earning a presidential veto. They’ve got much bigger issues to avoid making decisions on in DC these days. So I’d consider this a done deal.

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