Why Americans Can't Really Use Netflix's Facebook App

Unfortunately for Americans who want to use all of the features in Netflix's Facebook application, the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 still hasn't been updated.

Unfortunately for Americans who’ve been clamoring for the ability to use all of the features in Netflix’s Facebook application, the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 still hasn’t been updated.

According to CNNMoney, VPPA was spawned when Washington City Paper freelance writer Michael Dolan obtained the rental history of then-Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and published it to prove a point. VPPA became law a few months later.

However, VPPA prohibits home video rental services from disclosing customers’ personal information without their written consent, and the 25-year-old legislation does not account for current technology, despite a 1988 revision that expanded the wording to “videotapes or similar audiovisual materials.”

Hulu ventured into the grey area of VPPA with its Facebook app, which allows users to opt-in or opt-out of sharing their viewing histories, but Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey said his company would not follow suit, telling CNNMoney:

It’s ambiguous about whether it applies to us. We just don’t know, and we’d rather be in compliance than risk stepping over the line.

We’re living online. We’re living in public. The fact that this is not regulated for music, books, and other media, but it is for movies … it’s just unfair to consumers.

Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia feels the same way, having introduced an amendment to VPPA last year that would allow Netflix users to give their consent for sharing via the Internet, in advance, for a set period, and telling CNNMoney:

This is how people do it now for books and articles, and they don’t need the government’s approval. The only reason there’s a distinction is because the government took control of the issue in 1988.

Goodlatte’s amendment, H.R. 2471, was passed by the House of Representatives in December, but it has run afoul of Senate Democrats including Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota.

Leahy said at a January hearing, “A one-time check off that has the effect of an all-time surrender of privacy does not seem to me the best course for consumers,” and Franken added, “After hearing the testimony today, I do think that it is time to update [VPPA], but I’m still unconvinced that H.R. 2471 is the way to do that.”

The bottom line: Until a consensus is reached on VPPA and H.R. 2471, Americans can go through the motions of installing Netflix’s Facebook app but can’t actually use any of the features that people in 46 other countries get to use.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.