Uh oh! Netflix is in hot water again over privacy. While their last one seemed like it was actually a problem, so much so that the company settled the suit, this one seems more far fetched. A Peter Comstock of Virginia has filed what he hopes to become a class-action lawsuit against Netflix over the retention of private information in regards to video rental history and recommendations. Personally, I think that's silly but hey, I'm a public Internet personality (so I say).
Mr. Comstock alleges that Netflix is breaking The Video Privacy Protection Act law which basically says that a video cassette rental company cannot retain private data for more than a year after the closing of an account with them. Or more accurately, a year after the provider no longer needs the data.
But Judge, we still needed it!
Now, this could easily be defeated if Netflix can show some modicum of proof that a majority of subscribers who quit their service do actually return within a year. That would then, to me, extend the lifetime of that data to one year from the day when the number of returning subscribers drops below 50% of those that quit the service. On top of that, if they were to strip off any personally identifiable information, like say my name, age, address, phone, username, then all that's left is a history of rentals and recommendations for some anonymous user. The previous case involved age and ZIP code and that was why they settled. I imagine that since then, they might have changed some policies.
Yeah, it's complicated, perhaps I should have been a lawyer as it seems I'm helping Netflix build their defense. Really, this all hinges on the aforementioned data and, what exact data is retained by Netflix. If it is simply a tally of video rentals and an algorithm that creates recommendations on viewing based on those who rented these films and does not actually include personally identifiable information, I don't see a problem. I fully expect a company to retain a certain amount of usage records of its service after I am dead and gone.
We know what you did last summer...
What this really makes me wonder is, what exactly was Peter Comstock renting that he doesn't want others to know about? Perhaps his obsession with musicals will come to light or the fact that he likes to watch a good old-fashioned tear-jerking chick flick on a weekly basis. More interestingly is, how does he know they're still retaining his information? Perhaps he did in fact return to the service only to find that they remembered his history and began creating recommendations based on it. I think that would further go to prove their point that they still needed the data since the subscriber returned.
I do agree that some privacy rights are indeed necessary to some degree. But then what about all those so-called loyalty programs at supermarkets and retail outlets which clearly are marked at tracking your purchasing history so that they can better market certain goods and services to you? How long can they retain the data after you stop using the card and more importantly, do you really care that someone knows you buy a twelver of Pabst every other night?
If not, then why would you care that someone knows you rented Bridget Jones Diary 82 times?
Well, combine those two facts and I would be marketing anti-depressants and psychiatry to you actually.
I did, back in the day, work at Blockbuster. I do recall being able to pull up the records of people who hadn't used their accounts for numerous months at a time. I don't recall the longest period of inactivity that I managed to retrieve information on, but I know it was possible.
I guess that really all Netflix has to do is show that they have a need for that information up until a certain period of time and that the period of time hasn't passed and they're good to go. Right?
As for your Netflix streaming history, well, no actual decision has ever been made by a court on that information. Logically, the same rule would apply to it as to any other form of video media renting, but Mr. Comstock quit his Netflix account over a year ago, prior to their streaming only service, so really, his case will, if it gains traction, fall into the realm of that 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act.
One day though, an online streaming service will most likely be sued for violating the privacy rights of a consumer and then a precedent will be set. Personally, I think they should just amend the current law to cover multimedia rentals no matter the medium. Besides, if you don't want anyone to find out what you are watching, simply go buy it with cash in some shop that has no camera surveillance while wearing a baseball cap, fake mustache and big 70's sunglasses.