Senate passes Facebook-Netflix bill, cuts privacy provision on warrantless email searches

Josh Peterson Contributor
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Congress found time amid the tenuous fiscal cliff negotiations to pass a bill that allows Facebook users the ability to share their Netflix viewing history, and it also cut a provision that would have specifically required law enforcement to obtain warrants — rather than administrative subpoenas — to access and search some private emails.

Facebook and Netflix already have arrangements that allow for users in other countries to share their viewing history, but the the Video Privacy Protection Act stopped such an arrangement from being made between the two companies in the United States.

First passed in 1988, the VPPA required video rental or streaming services to obtain written consent from their members to disclose rental or viewing history.

The updated bill — which now allows Netflix users to opt-in to automatically share their viewing history through Facebook — passed the Senate Thursday evening via voice vote.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, convinced that social media users have not over-shared enough uninteresting or irrelevant information about themselves on the Internet, hailed the bill as a welcome evolution in a statement after the bill’s passage through the House on Tuesday.

“Social media users, especially young people, do not understand why they cannot share information about their favorite movies or TV shows in the same way that they can music or books,” said Goodlatte.

He continued on to say that the bill “preserves careful protections for consumers’ privacy while modernizing the law to empower consumers to do more with their video consumption preferences, including sharing favorite TV shows or recently watched movies via social media networks in a simple way.”

Controversy erupted over the bill in November when CNET originally reported that Senate judiciary committee Chairman Patrick Leahy was looking to remove any requirements from the bill for law enforcement to obtain a warrant prior to searching through emails and other electronic communication stored online.

Leahy’s office denounced the report and aggressively denied its claims, defending the senator’s record as a proponent of consumer privacy rights. (RELATED: Grassley hits Leahy on warrantless surveillance)

It also inspired the office of committee ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, to accuse Leahy’s office of keeping Grassley in the dark about the specifics of the bill.

The uproar caused the committee to pass the bill with the privacy provision still intact, but it was removed by the full Senate on Thursday from the final version, which will be sent to President Barack Obama.

Obama is expected to promptly sign the bill, according to a recent Wired report critical of the bill.

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