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Senate Passes Video Privacy Protection Act Amendment

As 2012 drew to a close, the Senate passed an amendment to the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) (H.R. 6671) that will make it easier for users to share their online video viewing activities.  The bill would amend the VPPA by clarifying that consumers may consent to the disclosure of their video viewing information:

  1. allow such consent to be provided through an electronic means using the Internet;
  2. require consent be in a form distinct and separate from any form setting forth other legal or financial obligations of the consumer;
  3. allow consent to be given in advance for a set period of time, not to exceed two years or until consent is withdrawn by the consumer, whichever is sooner; and
  4. provide an opportunity for the consumer to withdraw consent on a case-by-case basis or to withdraw from ongoing disclosures, at the consumer's election.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.  (Note: See this EDUCAUSE blog for background information.)

The House passed a similar bill, H.R. 2471, in December 2011.  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) created a substitute amendment for H.R. 2471 that included amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and several minor modifications to the VPPA portion.  The substitute amendment passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in late November 2012.  H.R. 6671 contains the same VPPA language as the Senate version, but does not include the ECPA amendments proposed by Sen. Leahy. 

Currently, the VPPA prohibits anyone's movie-rental history from being disclosed without specific written consent.  Services such as Netflix advocated for this legislation saying that the VPPA made it "ambiguous" how it could get consent from U.S. users to allow a sharing function on a social network such as Facebook.  This bill should clear up Netflix's concerns as well as those of other streaming-video providers.  It also shows the contours of what a Netflix sharing function might look like since the bill makes clear that: 1) consent for sharing video-watching history can be granted over the Internet; and 2) consent can be given for a whole period of time, up to two years, and doesn't need to be given every time sharing happens. It also specifies that the disclosure has to be in a "distinct" form.  In other words, it cannot be put it in the fine print.  Consumers will be allowed to withdraw consent for sharing when they want to, on a case-by-case basis, or altogether.

The VPPA was passed originally after the 1988 U.S. Senate debate over the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.  It was meant to prevent the press and other groups from accessing video rental records of citizens without their written consent.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on this issue.


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