Netflix showing way too much love – for your Facebook data

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Photo Brian Solis – www.briansolis.com

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Has Reed Hastings sold us out to Mark Zuckerberg?

I never thought I’d join this crowd of complainers.

In June I wrote 2 blog posts entitled Get yer grimy paws off my Netflix: Ottawa’s big OTT scam. If you didn’t stampede to read them, that might be because they ran a total of 6,400 words. The posts were part love-in. I’ve been a big fan of Netflix since they launched here – for the interface, the support team, the way they handle bandwidth fluctuations (helpfully), and, of course, because of folk hero and CEO, Reed Hastings.

As widely reported since August, our hero has made a number of surprising missteps – starting with the price hike for the combo DVD/streaming pack in the US, and, more to the point, the silly idea of Qwikster as a completely separate DVD service, plus the silly way it was announced. The market hammered them for their sins, pushing their share price down from just under $300 in August to $116 as of last Friday’s market close (Bloomberg).

I thought all the cancelled subscriptions, howls of protest and marketplace beatings were, forgive me for putting it this way, a little over the top. That’s easy to say if you’re Canadian, of course, since Netflix is streaming-only up here – no abrupt DVD service changes to bitch about. But then it was Friday night, I went looking for movies and this unsolicited grab for my attention popped up on the monitor:

David, get the most out of Netflix!

<Click to CONNECT>

– See what your Facebook friends are doing on Netflix.
– Automatically share all your Netflix activity with your Facebook friends, including what you’ve watched.
– Try it—you can disconnect at any time.

Turns out this automatic sharing is part of the “Timeline” Zuckerberg unveiled at the f8 Developers Conference last month. He calls it “frictionless sharing.” No more need to think about sharing and no more of those tingly sensations you get when you rub up against other people.

What about the promise to help us “get the most” out of Netflix? I’m tired of brands big and small sticking nagging pop-ups in my face to persuade me to friend a service I’ve already friended. Does Netflix have a page on Facebook? Who gives a shit? I pay Netflix every month to friend them – and I’ve occasionally written some flattering things about their service on this page. Their support team has supported me. I support them right back. Etc.

Let’s call this spade what it is: advertising for Facebook.

Aside from the unsolicited clutter, this new pitch indulges in something marketers should always avoid: announcing gleefully I’m going to enjoy an incremental benefit just by clicking. As if. The benefits here are a) Zuckerberg gets even more of your data; and b) Hastings builds mindshare and awareness on the cheap. Period. You might argue this deal is cool as relieves you of any need to alert your friends as to what you’re watching on Netflix – or, to use an old-fashioned concept, to recommend to your friends the movies and TV shows you’ve enjoyed. But that’s exactly the problem. Let’s review what the not-so-fine print says in that popup, right after “you can disconnect at any time” (at least it’s not concealed on some other page in 4-point type) …

Clicking Connect will give Netflix access to your basic Facebook information, including your name, profile picture, gender, user ID, networks and friends list. Netflix will automatically share everything you have watched, and other Netflix activity, on your Facebook Wall and with your Facebook friends on Netflix.

Et tu, Brute?

I thought Hastings had a little more class. What makes this siren song really unsavory is that once you click on Connect – and all it takes is one click – then your private life and personal data are all in the hands of Zuckerberg, who has spent his career playing a shell game with privacy regulators, with you as the bait. The announcement says you’re giving Netflix access to everything about you on Facebook (I don’t buy the “basic” qualifier). Absent indications to the contrary, I assume Netflix reserves the right to start spamming marketing to all your friends as it comes into possession of their data. And what if you do decide to disconnect at some point? Well, it’s not as if the data-miners are going to give back what they’ve got on you and your friends.

The flip side is worse. The information flow from Netflix to Facebook is where “frictionless” data-scaping rears its ugly head. In plain English, that means you’re giving up control over any of your Netflix-related information, plus renouncing any exercise of choice or judgment in what you “recommend” or not to your friends. This is the new world order of the AUPs: all or nothing. You can stay in your cave – or join the mainstream and become one of the fortunate 800 million simply by relinquishing your right to keep to yourself. Just don’t try fine-tuning the arrangement to suit your purposes.

I’d especially like Netflix to confirm what it means by saying we will – if connected – have not only all our viewing posted publicly, in an undiscriminating, unstoppable stream, but in addition will have all “other Netflix activity” publicly revealed. I assume that means all my searches, looking at trailers, reading blurbs, following what the Netflix learning engine recommends and so on. What about phone calls to support? Bill payments? Emails to the CEO? How many marketing partners are lurking under the counter, being handed our information without our explicit knowledge? Or… What if I spend most of my time with the Netflix collection of Gay & Lesbian movies? What if I don’t want people to know about my particular viewing habits, because of my job or family or marriage or whatever? After reading the Privacy Policy, I’d say cancelling my membership was the safest bet.

This is what the Netflix Privacy Policy says about Facebook (requires sign-in; it’s dated September 5, while Zuckerberg’s Timeline launch was September 22):

Facebook: For members located in certain countries, if you connect your Netflix account to Facebook, we may access information about you and your friends who are registered on Facebook. We may import, use, disclose and retain this information to, among other things, customize and improve the Netflix service for you, your friends and others. In addition, by connecting your Netflix account to Facebook, your friends and others who have access to view information about you on Facebook will also be able to see (on Facebook and on Netflix) that you’re a Netflix member as well as what you’ve watched, rated, and other information about your use of the Netflix service. Please note that Facebook will import, use and retain this information. See Facebook’s privacy policy for details. You’ll also be able to see similar information about your Facebook friends who are connect with Netflix. You can disconnect from sharing future information by visiting “Your Account.” You may also control how certain information is shared with Netflix in your Privacy Settings on Facebook.

And Learn more adds: “Netflix may personalize or otherwise enhance your experience based on your Facebook information, such as your Likes and Interests.”

Why “control” of FB privacy settings is a meaningless reassurance

Over the last three or four years, FB members have been treated to a host of slippery moves designed to make the operation more attractive to paying partners. Who could forget Facebook Beacon, the ad system that revealed in members’ news feeds what they had purchased on partner websites. It took lawsuits and just short of two years to get that initiative shut down. But a huge operation like Facebook can always borrow a page from incumbent ISPs: tangle your customers in confusing fine print and make it as hard as possible for them to look after their own interests.

A perfect illustration of how this works was picked up by Ivor Tossel in the Globe and Mail recently (October 5) on how “Facebook’s photo-tagging tweaks rig the game against privacy.” Ivor starts off by making a shrewd observation about the erosion of privacy:

Big changes to Facebook make big headlines. But it’s the small changes we really need to worry about.

It is of course the small changes that millions of people either don’t notice or can’t be bothered doing anything about. Some changes may even be welcomed by those who like their services, uh… frictionless.

“With a small interface tweak, Facebook has made it harder to untag yourself from a photo. Not impossible – just harder. It’s gone from a split-second one-click process to a three-dialogue box option-hunting hassle. It sounds innocuous enough, but “harder” is all it takes to sway the behaviour of millions in favour of Facebook’s interests – at the expense of their own.”

Ivor goes on to describe the challenging mechanism that’s been created for getting rid of tags – which may be important to your teenage kid who got wasted at a party and was photographed in the bathroom… ok, you know how that goes. Or maybe you don’t. Were you aware Facebook gives members the chance to flag photos showing what they call “illegal drug use”?

The sad thing is Facebook has a major incentive for catching so many people doing whatever they’re doing in what they think is a private setting. Ivor again:

“It’s good for business. The more internal links the site contains, the more people click, the more time people spend on the site, the more information is gathered about users, and the better advertising can be targeted, seen and sold. And let’s be honest, to the viewer, it’s useful when photos are tagged. It’s engaging to put names to those unknown characters who lurk in the background, and to explore their profiles in turn. Tagging is good for everyone, except perhaps the people in those photos.”

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Epilog: Netflix vs the Video Privacy Protection Act

As Zuckerberg was on stage giving the world frictionless sharing, Michael Drobac, director of Government Relations at Netflix, wrote a blog post celebrating the fact Netflix members in Canada and Latin America would be able to connect their accounts to Facebook. But mostly, he lamented the fact that, in the land of the free, home of the brave and headquarters of both Netflix and Facebook, Netflix members could not link to Facebook. It’s entitled “Help us bring Facebook sharing to Netflix USA.”

If you’re old enough to remember failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, you may also remember that Bork had an extremely narrow view of privacy rights, and that view prompted a journalist to obtain and leak a list of Bork’s video rentals. Even though his most outrageous rental might have been Ruthless People (funny, with Danny DeVito, Bette Midler), certain elected representatives in Congress apparently imagined some of their gayish rentals might be next. So they passed the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPAA), designed to prevent the “wrongful disclosure of video tape rental or sale records [or similar audio visual materials, to cover items such as video games and the future DVD format]. You’ll never guess what happens next…

Fast forward to 2008. A lawsuit is brought against Blockbuster for releasing confidential customer records to… Facebook!… under its Beacon ad program.

Fast forward to 2009. A lawsuit is brought under the VPPA for releasing confidential customer records to… Netflix! (for the Netflix Prize).

Fast forward to 2010. Lane v. Facebook is settled in a class action concerning privacy violations that affected 3.6 million Facebook members, a settlement that saw Beacon disappear for good and Facebook invest $9.5 million in a privacy fund – none of which ever went to compensate affected Facebook members.

Fast forward to September 22. Michael Drobac writes a subtle legal analysis in his Netflix post about why there’s a problem here:

Unfortunately, we will not be offering this [linking] feature in the U.S. because a 1980’s law creates some confusion over our ability to let U.S. members automatically share the television shows and movies they watch with their friends on Facebook.

And fast forward to last week. In a move to get rid of this annoying “confusion,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) took up the good fight and got H.R. 2471, a bill to amend the VPPA, pushed through the House Judiciary Committee (Goodlatte chairs the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet). The new legislation is aimed at keeping privacy protection while letting Facebook and Netflix do what they like with their Timeline scheme.

Writing on October 13 in the National Journal’s Tech Daily Dose, Juliana Gruenwald adds this helpful piece of information about how to get confusing privacy laws from impeding commercial progress:

Coincidentally, two of Drobac’s three campaign contributions this year went to Goodlatte and one of the bill’s original cosponsors, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., each of whom got $1,000 from Netflix’ top Washington representative.

That seems awful cheap for a Republican House Sub-Committee Chairman.

Anyways, don’t believe the hype.

D.E.