HR 2471 Doesn’t Address How Video Streaming Works

November 2, 2011

Here’s the latest status of the HR 2471 to amend the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) to allow us to share our video viewing on social networks: The bill has been voted out of the House Judiciary Committee and is expected to be brought to the House floor for a vote before the end of the year, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office. The Judiciary Committee offered one amendment that requires consent for sharing video viewing on social networks not be buried in the general terms and conditions; rather, it would require a separate consent. Congressman Mel Watts again voiced his privacy concerns at the hearing. He ultimately withdrew his amendment with the understanding that the bill’s sponsor Congressman Goodlatte would meet with him to address his concerns. No word yet from either Congressman if the bill will be amended to address those concerns.

To offer my own opinion, the bill by itself seems to make sense. Why not let people share their viewing choices on social networks? The bill attempts to do this by simply amending the current Video Privacy Protection Act. It works well for a single person who is the only one using the account. What the bill fails to address is how households now interact today with video streaming services. Back when we all went to the video store (wasn’t that fun!), the video membership card was held by an adult. Purchases were paid for and controlled by the adult of the households. In the world of video streaming, most viewing is done using a connected device such as an Apple TV, game console or Blu-ray player versus a laptop or mobile device. The entire household shares the device connected to the TV and this device is typically not aware of the identity of the user.

This is very different from how Facebook and other social networks relate to the individual. Every individual has a Facebook account. If families share it in any way, Mom or Dad is gating content children can add. 

The majority of connected streaming devices and services on the market do not implement the concept of identity or profiles. From the box’s point of view, there’s only one user regardless of who’s using it in the family. The only boxes that I’m aware of that implementing profiles are the Boxee and Microsoft’s Xbox which was further enhanced with Kinect’s facial recognition functionality.

On top of this, the parental controls on most video streaming services are lackluster at best. Hulu Plus is lacking them all together as is Amazon’s new Prime Video streaming. Netflix is apparently working on them but is currently limited to a single rating setting that can take hours to go into effect and cannot be overridden. While Netflix has lots of great content for kids, it also has its share of soft-porn. Only iTunes, VUDU and HBO GO seem to have a usable set of controls in place.

Interestingly enough, you have to be 13 or older to have a Facebook account. Well, if HR 2471 passes in its current form, children will potentially have a backdoor into Facebook as well as other social networking services. All of this depends on how the sharing is implemented. Facebook puts extra restrictions on the accounts of users who are 13 to 17 years old. What happens when junior shares “A Nightmare on Elm Street” with a threatening note to the kid he doesn’t like?  I don’t know if this likely happen but there’s been little discussion around the topics of privacy and sharing and how they will work in this architecture.

I’m not advocating that HR 2471 mandate specific parental controls and identity features. Usually, when the government puts technical mandates out there, they can go wrong. Remember CableCARD? What is needed is a good faith effort by video streaming vendors and consumer electronics manufacturers to put the proper parental controls and profile features in place.
Boxee's Video Sharing via Facebook
Boxee’s Video Sharing via Facebook

Tags: Apple TV, Boxee, HBO, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, streaming, VUDU, Xbox

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