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Netflix’s Facebook App Might Be Illegal Under ‘Forgotten’ 1980’s Law

When reading about how Netflix’s Facebook app (anticipated for a while and, we have to say, kind of a cool innovation to make the experience of watching Netflix films in your pjs alone more “social”) and how it may be illegal under a “forgotten 1980’s law,” it seriously makes us feel old.

Like, oh, the 80’s… who was even alive then? I hear people ate pudding pops and real-sugar cereal and went from place to place on quaint conveyances called “roh-ler skates,” supping Jolt cola from glass bottles and listening to boopy quasi-futuristic music! Or so Wikipedia says!

A law that may have been conceived when media was massive and tape-based affecting the then-inconceivable practice of streaming films too seems a bit strange, something invented back when bulletin boards were only cork bits on the wall and the idea of keeping contact with people you went to grade school with on a daily basis didn’t even exist.


But CNN points out that a law from the era when video stores reigned (hands up if you remember having a two-month wait for a particularly hot release, and fines of $100 if you lost the tape) and following on from that, the simmering issue of having to adapt our old and obsolete media laws to reflect this brave new frontier. The law is called the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), and it deals with publishing a person’s movie rental history.

Back then, your local rental store was pretty much the only game in town. If you wanted to watch something embarrassing or involving questionable content (such as Faces of Death, amirite?), you had to like, go at a low-traffic time and act all shifty. And chances were you’d run into the school principal or your mom’s best friend. But what prompted the law in 1987 was a reporter obtaining and publishing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s rental history. The Washington City Paper writer Michael Dolan said, at the time, the point of the publishing was intentional- Bork said privacy rights were only “conferred by legislation.”

Still, lawmakers got right on the VPPA and passed it, and Netflix concedes the law may apply to tweeting out or Facebooking your Netflix habits- a rep told CNN:

“It’s ambiguous about whether it applies to us. We just don’t know, and we’d rather be in compliance than risk stepping over the line.”

Social media legal analyst James Gatto of Pillsbury Law tells the site:

“Arguably, the intent of the law is that the form of the video — streaming or disc — shouldn’t matter… An attorney general would say that. But Hulu could possibly argue that the law covers only physical goods.”

Lawmakers are currently reviewing the VPPA to see how services like Netflix and Hulu are affected, and determining what if any changes to make to the now-obsolete law.