It cost Netflix about $1.5 million in lobbying money to convince Congress to legalize sharing what you watch on your Facebook wall.
Last week, just a day before the death of the judge whose congressional nomination inspired the legislation, the Senate voted to relax the Video Privacy Protection Act passed in 1988 that had prohibited video service providers from sharing the viewing history of customers without consent.
Netflix spent $1 million lobbying the legislation in 2012, and about half that the year before. Though that’s an enormous pile of cash, it may very well have been worth every penny. The change clears the way for Netflix to cooperate with Facebook to offer social viewing feeds, creating a social sharing experience that would work similar to Spotify.
Netflix customers now have the ability to connect their Netflix account to Facebook to create a social experience where they can view what their friends have watched, liked and commented about on Netflix. The Netflix Facebook Friends feature includes two main views: favorite content as well as recently watched material. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg contributed to the design.
“You’ll see what titles your friends have watched in a new ‘Watched by your friends’ row and what they have rated four or five stars in a new ‘Friends’ Favorites’ row,” Cameron Johnson, Director of Product Innovation at Netflix, explained in the company’s blog. “Your friends will also be able to see what you watch and rate highly.”
Those that opt into Facebook Friends can specify which content doesn’t get shared, so nobody knows you watched “Naked Nuns with Guns” or think you’re a fan of SpongeBob when it’s really your three year old.
Netflix customers voluntarily connect the service through their Facebook accounts, providing consent, so Netflix technically did not need Congress to amend the VPPA to introduce this feature, but likely waited until the political soup cleared as a precaution. If an error had led to one customer’s viewing history being shared without consent, the company would be in fairly hot water in a legal environment that has taken a staunch position on privacy issues in the wake of the tech revolution.
As Slate points out, the VPPA was passed in the wake of Senate Confirmation hearings of Judge Robert Bork. A reporter had interviewed a video store clerk and obtained Bork’s rental history. Though the story did not reveal anything inflammatory beyond the judge’s preference for British whodunit movies, the instance scared enough legislators who likely had rented behind the red curtain and had something to hide.
Whether people want to automatically share everything they watch remains to be seen. The service has been available to about 6 million customers in Canada, Latin America and the U.K., but only about 20 percent of subscribers signed up, Bloomberg reported. That service, however, didn’t let users choose what not to post. Likely the updated version that allows self-censorship will see greater adoption, thanks in part to a paranoid Congress in the late ’80s who didn’t want their constituents to know they rented “Revenge of the Nerds II” more than once.
“Social is going to be everything,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told Bloomberg in a January interview. “Our kids are way more social than us; their kids will be way more social than them. You tell your friends about what you watch and they’ll watch much more of what we offer.”