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Congress must act for U.S. Netflix, Facebook integration

Thanks to law banning dissemination of video rental records, U.S. Facebook users can't access Netflix through Facebook. But Congress is taking up new bill that would amend original law. "Mad Men" awaits.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, speaking Thursday at F8, the Facebook developers conference in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--If you're a Facebook user eager for Netflix integration, you'll likely have to wait for Congress to act before getting your wish.

It turns out, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said Thursday at F8, Facebook's developers conference here, that of the 45 countries where the troubled movie rentals service is offered, integration with the world's leading social network will be available in 44. Facebook users in the United States won't have access to Netflix.

How could that be, especially given that both Netflix and Facebook are U.S.-based companies that have giant user bases here? It turns out, Hastings said sheepishly, that a piece of federal legislation--1988's Video Privacy Protection Act--is behind the ban.

According to EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the VPPA

was passed in reaction to the disclosure of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's video rental records in a newspaper. The Act is not often invoked, but stands as one of the strongest protections of consumer privacy against a specific form of data collection. Generally, it prevents disclosure of personally identifiable rental records of "prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual material."

Fortunately, Hastings told the packed house at F8, Congress is trying to undo its 23-year-old action. With H.R. 2471, the U.S. House of Representatives is attempting to amend the VPPA. The new bill, which is now before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, would "clarify that a video tape service provider may obtain a consumer's informed, written consent on an ongoing basis, and that consent may be obtained through the Internet."

That's probably a good thing, since the original law was passed 23 years ago, well before anyone ever anticipated that it might pose a problem to millions of Facebook users being able to watch their favorite episode of "Mad Men."

Still, because of some of the provisions of the VPPA, there are likely to be those that oppose its being amended. The original law, according to EPIC, imposed "a general ban on the disclosure of personally identifiable rental information unless the consumer consents specifically and in writing."

It would seem that H.R. 2471 addresses that provision, and that Facebook users will be able to consent via the social network. Some privacy advocates may still voice concerns, but it's also likely that the backing of companies like Netflix will convince Congress to act.