Video service Netflix Inc. unveiled a new feature on Wednesday that allows U.S. subscribers to let their Facebook friends know what television shows and movies they are watching and also see friends’ viewing activity.
In other jurisdictions, including Canada, Netflix users have been able to do this for about a year. In the U.S. the company was waiting on the modification of the Video Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1988.
The two-decade old law prohibited video providers like Blockbuster from disclosing consumers’ video rental information without written consent. Legislators pushed for the law after Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental records were published in a newspaper during his failed confirmation hearings in 1987.
Netflix, which claimed to have with 27.2 million U.S. subscribers at the end of last year, said customers will have an option in their Netflix settings to connect to Facebook Inc. If they agree to share information, rows of friends’ movie and TV titles will appear in their account.
Once enabled, users will share everything they watch with their Facebook-connected Netflix friends, though a manual “opt-out” is available on a video-by-video basis. Similarly, users must choose to share individual shows with their wider Facebook community on a case-by-case basis.
The feature will be available in the U.S. by the end of the week, Netflix said.
In January, when the Video Privacy Protection amendments were up for debate in Congress, critics voiced concerns that changes to the law would weaken consumer privacy rights.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the bill could gut an otherwise model privacy law, and argued that Netflix’s claim that the law prevented integration with Facebook was false.
“It’s not just the friends of that individual to whom the specific movie viewing will be disclosed. It’s also to Netflix business partners and it’s also potentially to law enforcement,” Rotenberg said of the House bill’s broader implications.
Senator Patrick Leahy, lead author of the 1988-enacted law, characterized the House action as “dominant corporate interests (enticing) a check off in order to receive what may seem like a fun new app or service.”
“A one-time check off that has the effect of an all-time surrender of privacy does not seem to me the best course for consumers,” he said at the hearing.
Netflix said the social features will be tested regularly and could change over time. Netflix shares rose 4.5 per cent to $190.29 in early trading.
With files from Jasmin Melvin and Globe Staff
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