Netflix Facebook integration gets Borked

Legislation We’ll have more on Netflix’s Q2 earnings report shortly, but one odd item bears flagging because, unless you’ve been around the video business for long time, you might not get the reference.

According to CEO Reed Hastings’ shareholder letter, Netflix plans to introduce its long-planned Facebook integration shortly, probably before its next earnings announcement. But the integration will only be available to users in Canada and Latin America initially:

At this point, we plan to launch this initiative only in Canada and Latin America, as the VPPA (VideoPrivacy Protection Act) discourages us from launching our Facebook integration domestically. Under the VPPA, it is ambiguous when and how a user can give permission for his or her video viewing data to be shared. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a simple clarification, HR2471, which says when and how a user can give such permission. We’re hoping HR2471 passes, enabling us to offer our Facebook integration to our U.S. subscribers who desire it.

For those joining us only in the last two decades, the VPPA — otherwise known as the Bork Bill — was passed during the Reagan administration and bars video rental services from revealing or sharing information about their customers’ rental history.

It was passed in haste after a pair of enterprising reporters got hold of Judge Robert Bork’s video rental store records during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and published them. While there was nothing terribly embarrassing in the records, apart from what they revealed of Bork’s middlebrow tastes, Congress panicked over the potential for invasion of privacy and made revealing such records without a court order a felony.

The new bill referred to by Hastings, HR2471, was introduced earlier this month by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and would clarify that a video rental service could obtain informed, written consent from users, via the Internet, to sharing their viewing history — a necessary predicate to any integration with a third-party application like Facebook.

The full text of HR2471, all two sentences of it, can be found here (PDF)

The bill is currently pending before the House Judiciary Committee. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s the sort of bill that could pass without much fuss, likely by voice vote. But these are not ordinary times on Capitol Hill, so it’s at least an open question as to when the Judiciary Committee might actually get around to voting on it, to say nothing of it getting calendared for the full House.

There is currently no companion bill in the Senate, either. So the exact timing of the Bork Bill waiver has to be considered uncertain at this point. Insofar as Netflix feels the waiver is essential to the introduction of any Facebook integration in the U.S., that uncertainty could turn out to be a bigger problem than Hastings is letting on.