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Lawmakers question proposed change to video privacy law

Grant Gross | Feb. 1, 2012
Let's say you like to watch heady documentaries over Netflix's streaming service and would like to share recommendations with your friends on Facebook. Netflix would like to offer that service, but the company says a 24-year-old U.S. law is in the way.

"Prudence in the protection of privacy ought to be the thing that guides us," added Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican. "The question is, should we err on the side of privacy or err on the side of commerce?"

Congress shouldn't be in the business of limiting what information Web users want to share on social media, said Christopher Wolf, a privacy lawyer with the Hogan Lovells law firm in Washington, D.C. In addition, Web users tend to tune out multiple warning screens and click through without thinking about it, he said.

If Web users had to give permission every time online services shared their data, "the number of reminders one would need every day would be in the thousands," Wolf said.

Privacy advocates called on Congress to strengthen the VPPA, not weaken it. One of the law's weaknesses is that it applies only to video rentals, said William McGeveran, a privacy advocate and professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.

"Unintended disclosure of a user's choices of books, music, films or websites can also constrain the capacity to experiment and explore ideas freely," he said.

It would be relatively simple for Netflix to offer a "play and share" button on every streaming movie, and that kind of service would satisfy the requirements of the VPPA, he added.

Once some video companies get customer permission to share movie choices, they may make it difficult to reverse that decision, McGeveran said.


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