Outdated Law from 1980s Blocks Netflix from Releasing a Facebook App in the U.S.

Paul Lilly

Do you remember what you were doing in 1987? It was the year the Simpsons appeared for the first time as a series of shorts on The Tracy Ulman Show, Bow Wow was born, and both Larry Bird and Magic Johson were still in the NBA. It also happens to be the year an incident led to the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which was enacted a year later, nearly a decade before Netflix was founded and 16 years before Facebook launched. Yet this quarter-of-a-century old legislation is the reason why Netflix hasn't released a Facebook app in the U.S.

A CNNMoney report is drawing attention to the issue and explains that VPPA arose from "strange circumstances" in 1987 involving the failed Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. While Bork was being considered, a freelance journalist was able to obtain his rental history from a video store. Bork's rental history wasn't particularly damning in any way, but it made Congress uncomfortable and they quickly enacted VPPA, which made it illegal for a "video tape service provider" to disclose "personally identifiable information" about its customers without their written consent.

Looking beyond VHS, Congress included language referring to "prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual materials."

"It's ambiguous about whether it applies to us," Netflix told CNNMoney . "We just don't know, and we'd rather be in compliance than risk stepping over the line."

Netflix is lobbying for Congress to update VPPA, which not only is preventing the streaming service from launching a Facebook app, but is also proving costly via lawsuits, including a $9 million settlement in 2011 to customers who accused Netflix of holding onto their personal data for longer than a year.

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