Netflix’s Facebook app is up and running in all 46 countries where it offers service — all except America. Because of a law referring to “prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual materials.”
The video streaming service is blocked from creating a Facebook app in America because of a 1980s law. The law, Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), is meant to protect consumers’ privacy, and lawmakers are currently dealing with how to update it, but as of now it creates a difficult obstacle for video streaming companies like Netflix.
Oddly, the VPPA has no bearing in current times, as it arose during the failed Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. In 1987, while Bork’s nomination hearings were taking place, , a freelance writer for the Washington City Paper, Michael Dolan, talked a video store clerk into giving him Bork’s rental history. The city paper published the list – and Congress got upset and passed the VPPA. The law prohibits “a video tape service provider” from disclosing its customers’ “personally identifiable information,” without written consent from the consumer.
While the VPPA may be focused on the VHS world, Netflix said the vague language leaves the present-day situation unclear. Steve Swasey of Netflix said they’d rather be in compliance than have a problem on their hands under VPPA. Netflix is not a VPPA novice. The company disclosed that it paid $9 million to settle a 2011 lawsuit by customers who alleged that Netflix didn’t delete their personal account data after one year (another VPPA provision).
Hulu, on the other hand, has developed a go-around to VPPA. They allow users of their Facebook app to opt-in or opt-out of sharing their viewing history. It’s unclear as to exactly why Hulu can have an app and Netflix can’t, though it is arguable that the difference lies in the fact that Hulu does not have a hard product (DVDs, etc.) while Netflix does. Could that be the defining factor under VPPA? Since streaming did not exist in the 80s, it may come down to the spirit of the law – until an updated law takes its place.