Netflix Frictionless Sharing: Do You Want to Automatically Broadcast What You Watch?

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Do you like shoulder surfers? It would seem wise to raise both your security and your privacy hackles. On a security angle, shoulder surfing is a low-to-no hacking technique for acquiring sensitive or financial information. On a privacy angle, if you wanted to share with nosy shoulder surfers then you could do so of your own accord. Although it is considered "social," that choice to share or not should be each users. There are dangers lurking under the surface of frictionless sharing apps.

The lack of choice in auto-sharing apps is the reason the appeal of Facebook's frictionless sharing evades me; all that too much information (TMI) and in-your-face oversharing rubs me the wrong way. While BuzzFeed says the "backlash is fixing Facebook social readers," PCWorld says "Facebook's social reader users are fleeing in droves." Mashable took middle ground, stating, Facebook's social reader apps "usage may be down but engagement is up."

Netflix has a Facebook app that auto-posts for subscribers, publicizing what movies you are watching and even making recommendations based on your friends' viewing habits. Netflix offered its "frictionless" sharing tool to subscribers in 46 other countries, everywhere the company operates except in the USA. The "sole reason" it didn't launch in the U.S. is due to a law written 24 years ago, the 1988 (VPPA). The CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, also a Facebook board member, is backing a bill to change the U.S. law so the Netflix frictionless sharing app can automatically broadcast what you are watching.

Zuckerberg's social mission has a serious case of mission creep. He asked, "Do you want to go to the movies by yourself or with your friends? You want to go with your friends." Then again Zuckerberg wants you to share everything including music, reading, web-surfing and searches to which Neil Richards, professor of law at Washington University, said, "Not so fast." Indeed Richards makes numerous valid points, "A world of automatic, always-on disclosure should give us pause."

Richards blogged on Privacy Revolution:

What's at stake is something I call "intellectual privacy" - the idea that records of our reading and movie watching deserve special protection compared to other kinds of personal information. The films we watch, the books we read, and the web sites we visit are essential to the ways we try to understand the world we live in. Intellectual privacy protects our ability to think for ourselves, without worrying that other people might judge us based on what we read. It allows us to explore ideas that other people might not approve of, and to figure out our politics, sexuality, and personal values, among other things. It lets us watch or read whatever we want without fear of embarrassment or being outed. This is the case whether we're reading communist, gay teen, or anti-globalization books; or visiting web sites about abortion, gun control, or cancer; or watching videos of pornography, or documentaries by Michael Moore, or even "The Hangover 2."

EPIC reported that the 2011 Netflix-backed VPPA amendment "was heavily supported by entertainment companies" and passed the House of Representatives "without any opportunity for public debate or discussion" in December. The VPPA consent provision was weakened so that Netflix, and companies like it, would only need to obtain a "one-time, blanket consent from a user and then continuously disclose on Facebook all of the movies watched by that user. Netflix would automatically post this viewing information regardless of whether users would choose to post such information themselves."

Netflix is now busy throwing money at the VPPA problem and lobbying the Senate to pass the updated law. The company hired "the powerhouse law firm Greenberg Traurig to lobby Congress." Now that the Senate is considering a "TMI law," SFGate asked, "Should Congress be in the business of deciding what people can share through social media?" Patrick Leahy, the author of the 1988 VPPA, said, "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."

Netflix is totally disregarding Citi analyst Mark Mahaney's survey results that seven out of 10 Netflix subscribers are ‘not at all interested' in ‘seeing what [their] FB friends have watched on Netflix.' Mobile apps stated, Mahaney must think it's a grand idea, since he noted that perhaps "the folks he surveyed just don't know how cool it will be to learn that their pals are watching ‘Mad Men' or ‘Dora the Explorer' or whatever. And that if it becomes possible, they'll change their mind."

If you are a Netflix subscriber, then you know that between the ups and downs of Netflix and the slim choices of decent videos, you might watch something out of boredom that you wouldn't normally watch, most definitely don't want automatically shouted to the world, and then tapped again for Facebook advertisements.

In February, Netflix coughed up "$9 million to settle a lawsuit alleging it violated video privacy laws." Yet a company spokesperson denied wrongdoing, claimed the lawsuit was "immaterial" and any "potential loss was not probable." He also told The Hill "the case is unrelated to Netflix's lobbying for changes to the VPPA." Yeah, right; it surely has nothing to do with once bitten, twice shy.

Appdata shows that Netflix jumped 100,000 app subscribers today. Although I can't wrap my head around the wisdom of it, maybe people like the idea of shoulder surfers and frictionless social readers that get permission once to thereafter blab automatically? I hope frictionless sharing and social readers have jumped the shark, but the +100k jump could have also been tied to the fact that Netflix signed a deal with Twentieth Century Fox. Then again the jump may have been influenced by the New Zealand ISP that allows New Zealanders to get around "geographic restriction on US commercial download providers such as Netflix." The ISP FYX "promises to take geo-block beating into the mainstream."

If you are interested, here is a great article about social readers and privacy law. I don't have anything against Netflix, but I do value my privacy. If Netflix gets VPPA updated, hopefully it will follow Hulu's lead of privacy by design and be turned off by default.

What happens now shapes the future of what is considered a "reasonable" expectation of privacy. As privacy law expert Richards stated, “The stakes in this debate are immense. Choices we make now about the boundaries between our individual and social selves, between consumers and companies, between citizens and the state, will have massive consequences for the societies our children and grandchildren inherit.”

Wikimedia Commons image credits of frictionless sharing: Facebook, Netflix

This story, "Netflix Frictionless Sharing: Do You Want to Automatically Broadcast What You Watch?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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