Senate quietly changes Video Privacy Protection Act

Move helps Facebook and Netflix, challenges online video watchers
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While for most the holidays meant nail biting over the so-called fiscal cliff, overdosing on an unending string of college bowl games and watching in awe as NFL teams chopped more heads than the guillotine in the French Revolution, the U.S. Senate changed the rules of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). The move sated demands from Facebook and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) to open up more information on what users were watching online but also opened up online video information that previously was somewhat protected.

According to liberal blog ThinkProgress.org, the Senate didn't make a fuss about the changes, which were already approved by the House and are now headed for President Obama's signature.

"The Senate didn't even hold a recorded vote. The bill was approved by unanimous consent," the site said, offering credit to Joe Mullin of Ars Technica for being the first to notice.

The changes are significant for online viewers. Previously, the rules said individuals needed to give permission to share their video watching history each time they watched a video. More stringently, it stipulated law enforcement agencies needed a warrant, court order or grand jury subpoena to get access to that video watching history.

With the changes, however, "video streaming companies that want to share your data now only need to ask for your permission once. After that, they can broadcast your video watching habits far and wide for up to two years before having to ask again," the site said.

While the law's original intent was to block outsiders from tracking individual online viewing trends--or at least make it difficult for them--it also made it tough for Netflix to integrate its services with Facebook. Netflix therefore first went the legal route, challenging the law online, only to be rejected by a federal district court. The second effort involved money. Netflix poured $400,000 into a lobbying effort, and Facebook quadrupled that with $1.6 million of its own. Coincidentally or not, the changes then happened.

There were, apparently, good intentions on the part of some senators. ThinkProgress.org said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) had originally proposed a trade-off with stronger privacy protections for e-mail and other personal online documents covered by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

Then, however, "the House passed a version of the VPPA update without the balancing update to the ECPA. That forced a negotiation, and the Senate eventually gave in to the House's version," the site's story said.

For more:
- ThinkProgress.org has this story

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