Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Big Brother is Watching What You're Watching

The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 makes it illegal to disclose which videotapes an individual has rented, unless he or she has given informed, written consent at the time the disclosure is sought.

This means you can rent a copy of Lesbians in Leather Bondage from your local video store, mail order vendor, or Web site and not worry your prim and proper neighbors will give you awkward glances at the supermarket (so long as you’ve kept the volume down; walls being thin, of course).

More importantly, it also means the government will not have access to which videos you watch, or which books you buy online or borrow from libraries. Big Brother will not be able to demand a list of what media you are reading, viewing, and listening to. This harkens back to the days when the government spied on citizens to ferret out Communists within American society. In the 1950s, American citizens were punished for their political beliefs. Blacklists were drawn up to deny work to writers and actors based on their political ideology. The government realized it could discern what you believed based on what you read.

Congress even set up the House UnAmerican ActivitiesCommittee to interrogate leading citizens for any inkling they may have read the “wrong” books and periodicals, or listened to the “wrong” ideas advanced by those espousing opposing ideologies. Careers were ruined. Lives were shattered. It was the greatest witch hunt since the days of Salem. Massachusetts, where in 1692, hundreds of American citizens were tried for allegedly practicing witchcraft and 20 were executed. In the 1950s, witches had a new appellation: Communists.

When America regained its collective senses, it realized the Founders had drafted the Constitution with an inherent right of privacy, necessary to secure all the other rights the document bestowed. The right to privacy, free from government intrusion, was a prerequisite to independent thought and the formation of opinions and beliefs.

Privacy is an individual right and the decision to relinquish one’s privacy should always rest with the individual, not the government or profit-oriented businesses. If you want to share every aspect of your life – where you are, what you do, what you are reading or viewing – with the world on Twitter or Facebook, that is your choice… but no one else’s.

Netflix is backing a bill in Congress that would amend the Video Privacy Protection Act. If the video streaming corporation gets its way, Facebook users will be able to see which movies their friends and family are viewing. The bill allows consumers to give one-time blanket consent online for a company to share their viewing habits continuously. That’s right: one mouse click to relinquish your privacy forever. And guess what? The bill passed the House of Representatives last week (December 6, 2011). It now awaits passage in the Senate and then the president’s signature to become law.

This is corporate greed at its worst, eroding our civil liberties in the quest for more profits. If the Senate passes the bill as currently written, the revised law would vitiate your control over information collected about you while empowering corporations to develop and share detailed customer profiles.

Ignore this blog and let another of your civil liberties disappear. Or preserve your rights with a single mouse click by contacting your U.S. senators and telling them to vote against the amendment.

(For more information on the right of privacy and the Video Privacy Protection Act, refer to my book, Issues in Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, 6th ed.).

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