An archaic 1988 law, the Video Privacy Protection Act, currently prevents the sharing of your video watch lists, such as with services like Netflix or Hulu, on social media outlets such as Facebook or Google+. Earlier this month, the US Senate put through an upgrade to the bill to address this issue, to little notice. It was a minor correction to an old set of laws. But when the US House got ahold of it, they put forth some edits, which is where the problem begins.
These changes, as reported by the ACLU, divorces the bill from a larger set of laws, called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In so doing they eliminated protections which were in place to require a warrant for accessing of cloud-based private electronic communications and other content, such as email, private social network posts, any information stored on cloud based servers. Instead, a subpoena is all that is required, a legal process but one which does not require the due diligence of a warrant, not even requiring an active investigation to acquire.
The concern here is that a rogue office could issue subpoenas for data against political enemies. A similar process was abused by the Nixon administration to attack his enemies in the lead up to the Watergate scandal. Unlike a warrant, subpoenas do not require full disclosure to the effected target, with the result that it can be used for datamining against the opposition without them being fully aware of it. The ACLU’s concern of this modification to what was otherwise a simple upgrade to existing legislation is very warranted, with the GOP controlled house holding substantial subpoena powers. How tempting would it be to an errant Tea Party member of congress to abuse the power, perhaps to pose a primary challenge against a troublesome member of the opposing, or even the same party? With the record of position abuse by Tea Party members of congress, it is not a far fetched thought.
The divorcing of it from the larger protection bill, which would have covered this information, is a troublesome step. The original bill itself was passed in the wake of the failed Robert Bork nomination to the Supreme Court, when his personal video rental history was published without his permission by newspapers and other media outlets. The protections to privacy it put in place should not be eroded now, especially with the track record of the Tea Party in congress, and how they ignore the US Constitution and likely do not understand it at all. The ease of abuse is of serious concern not only for private citizens, but for those in the public light. While video rental lists may seem trivial, a lot can be derived from a person, or households rental lists.
Let me give an example, and put up a sample from the writers own Netflix rental list for this past weekend:
- How It’s Made
- Doctor Who
- White Christmas
- Top Gear
- Nightmare Before Christmas
- Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog
Now, if running for public office, a political opponent could twist this into an attack. They might label one obsolete, for enjoyment of the Bing Crosby classic. They might frame one nn elitist for enjoying science shows. They might call one unamerican for watching of foreign produced shows. They could attack any positions for clean energy for enjoying a show on high-performance dream cars. This is precisely how this can be abused, a simple thing of having a family which enjoys a large variety of content can be used as a club on political opponents.
Congress has passed the bill, and it does solve more problems than it introduces. The president is likely to sign it. But the citizens of the United States must put the pressure on Congress now to pass the other half, which ensures proper protection for the information found online. Call your congressman and senators today.