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Your online viewing habits are private and protected, says court


If you hate having the stuff you’re looking at online automatically shared with friends, strangers and marketing bots, here’s a ruling out of a California District Court that may give you some satisfaction.

In a class action suit against Hulu, the District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the video content you view online falls under the Video Privacy Protection Act. This applies even if you didn’t pay for that content, the way renters and buyers had to back in the VHS days.

This clarification of the VPPA, passed by Congress in 1988, is a long time coming, and not a moment too soon, the Electronic Frontier Foundation contends. Another video content business — Netflix — encourages legislation to amend the VPPA to ease restrictions on “frictionless sharing” — which only requires a single opt-in with a company to broadcast the stuff you’re looking at each and every time.

According to the class action suit against Hulu, the video content company violated the VPPA by sharing user viewing histories with third parties. Hulu argued that viewers didn’t count as “consumers” because they didn’t pay for content, and further, the company disclosed information as part of its “ordinary course of . . . business.”

The court disagreed.

“Congress [intended to protect] the confidentiality of private information about viewing preferences regardless of the business model or media format involved,” the court wrote in its finding.

President Ronald Reagan signed the VPPA into law almost 25 years ago, after Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental history was leaked to the press. In this post-Blockbuster age, several online outlets have run afoul of the law.

  • Netflix’s proposed amendment to the VPPA follows its own violation last year, when the company settled out of court on a class action suit accusing the company of retaining and disclosing info about former customers.
  • Facebook ran into the VPPA in 2008, when a class action suit accused Blockbuster, Fandango, Gamefly and Overstock of violating user privacy via the social network’s failed Beacon program, which shared purchases on user profiles.
  • That same year, Google attempted to use the VPPA when a New York federal court ruled that its video site, YouTube, must turn over data from its database revealing each time a YouTube video was viewed or embedded on another website. 

As Facebook and other online businesses increasingly depend on user information to make money, this clarification on video privacy should come to anyone whose ever been frustrated by opt-in and opt-out buttons on various applications. 

"Applications commonly require users to consent to access a particular article and everything they subsequently read gets shared via a social network," the EFF writes. "Passed long before the advent of 'frictionless sharing' the VPPA was generally intended to protect against this very type of powerlessness with respect to videos."

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about privacy, then asks you to join  her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.  Because that's how she rolls.