WASHINGTON — Netflix supports an update to the Video Privacy Protection Act that would allow consumers’ ongoing consent for posting information, allowing video service providers to use social media better, Netflix’s attorney told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

The company is introducing a new application that integrates a user’s video selections with Facebook.

The Video Privacy Protection Act is a 1988 law that prevents video stores and other video providers from wrongfully disclosing video rental records. Netflix and other video service providers have said they would like to share this information on social media sites, with customers’ consent. The House on Dec. 7 passed a measure that would allow video service providers to “obtain a consumer’s informed, written consent on an ongoing basis” and publish that information.

Netflix wants one-time users’ consent to apply to sharing their information on an ongoing basis so every piece of information would be available to be shared in users’ social networks. Netflix General Counsel David Hyman told the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law the company’s new collaboration with Facebook, which is already active in other countries, is a testament to the growth of both services. He said Netflix supports the House bill because it clarifies consumers’ option to share what they are watching on a continuous basis, without having to consent with each view.

Hyman said the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, passed after Robert Bork’s personal video rental list was leaked during his failed Supreme Court nomination hearings, is antiquated and needs to be updated for the digital age.

“Instead of trying to graft specific notions about video privacy from almost 25 years ago into the dynamic information age of today, we would encourage a measured and holistic review of privacy for the 21st century, one designed to foster continued innovation while balancing the desires and privacy expectations of consumer,” Hyman said.

William McGeveran, an associate professor at University of Minnesota Law School, said the law already allows video companies to implement social media strategies, but requires consent each time the information is sent. He said a feature like a “play and share” button would get the information on Facebook after the user gives authority on each view. In his opinion, this “opt-in” consent would be consistent with the current VPPA.

“Status updates, location check-ins, and photos do not ordinarily pop onto your Facebook page without your explicit case-by-case permission,” McGeveran said. “The [Video Privacy Protection Act]-compliant structure…would make sharing of videos quite similar.”
While this option may be possible under current parameters, Netflix prefers the blanket option that companies like Spotify use on Facebook. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said this provision would essentially “gut” the VPPA.

“Companies such as Netflix and Facebook could obtain consent once, and subsequently disclose hundreds of thousands of movie selections linked with personally identifiable information for years or decades to come,” Rotenberg said. “Companies could also make the blanket consent provision a condition of using their services, thereby removing all meaningful consent and effectively eviscerating the Act.”

Committee members and witnesses also argued over the merits of an “opt-in” system for each video in which users would choose to post their information over an “opt-out” system where users choose to not post their information. Between these methods, Netflix would rather have the “opt-out” because it capitalizes on users’ apathy towards making a decision, Hyman said.

North Carolina Rep. Melvin Watt, the top Democrat on the House’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet, appeared before the Senate subcommittee to share his displeasure with the House bill.

“While I support innovation on the web, however, I cannot do so at the expense of individual privacy,” Watt said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy agreed that privacy should not be sacrificed for the sake of simplicity.

“A one-time checkout has the effect of an all-time surrender of privacy,” Leahy said. “It doesn’t seem like the best way for consumers.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoman who is the top Republican on the subcommittee, said the argument was “a question between protecting privacy and promoting commerce.”

Graphic by James Arkin