Video Privacy Protection Act Changes: Ease of Use, or Easy Loss of Privacy?

January 18, 2013

The Video Privacy Protection Act, or “VPPA,” was a law originally intended to protect the privacy of consumers. The law was passed in 1988 following Robert Bork’s nomination process, during which there was a public disclosure of his video rental records. (A cynical person might think that the law came into being when the members of Congress involved in the nomination process decided they might need more protection for their own video rental records.) In general terms, the law prevents the disclosure of video rental information that would allow others to identify you as an individual. Under the original terms of the VPPA, the consumer was required to give “informed consent” to any such disclosure, meaning that the consent had to be given with the full knowledge of its scope and effects. Most importantly, the consent had to be in writing.

To state the obvious, in the years since 1988, consumers’ use of media technology has greatly expanded. (When is the last time you rented a video cassette?) Social media websites have also changed the way consumers interact with businesses. These websites found the VPPA restrictive. Obtaining written consent for disclosure of viewing preferences in every instance was cumbersome. Some websites, like Netflix, had to disable features such as Facebook compatibility out of fear of non-compliance with the law. Not surprisingly, the websites began to lobby for changes. On January 10, 2013, President Obama signed into law new amendments to the VPPA. In a nutshell, these amendments allow businesses to obtain consumers’ consent by electronic means, rather than in writing.

What does that mean for you? It means that, as is always true on the Internet, you should be careful where you click. You may soon see pop-ups asking whether you wish to share your viewing preferences with members of your social networks. Watch these terms carefully, because in many cases you will likely also be consenting to disclosure of your viewing history to others, including advertisers or other vendors. Under new amendments, your consent has to be given in a separate amendment, not via standard user agreements or terms of service, and the services must renew your consent periodically as well as give you some conspicuous means to withdraw your consent. As a result, if, as you read this, you’re concerned that you already may have given your consent, you should be able to locate a means on the applicable website to revoke your consent.

The VPPA amendments may allow for more services through social media networks. However, carefully reviewing any terms before consenting is always a good idea. And when in doubt, don’t consent—given the way most websites operate, you will be given ample opportunities to consent again in the future if there is a service they want to get to you.

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