Congress struggles with Facebook’s frictionless sharing

It’s no big surprise that Facebook wants to make it as easy as possible for users to share with their friends what they’re reading, listening to and watching. That was the key message at the social network’s f8 developers conference. But when it comes to video, a little-known law from the ’80s could hold back those ambitions, at least for users who want to seamlessly share what they’re watching on Netflix (s NFLX) or Hulu.

The Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), which was enacted in 1987 in the wake of the Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination hearings (after Bork’s video rental records were released to a newspaper by his local video store), prohibits companies from sharing viewer records publicly. The act was also at the center of a class-action lawsuit aimed at Blockbuster (s DISH) after the rental store began sharing its records with Facebook back during the Facebook Beacon debacle of 2007.

As a result, some video companies — most notably Netflix — have shied away from integrating with Facebook’s Open Graph, at least in the U.S. While Netflix will allow users to share viewing history with Facebook friends in Canada and in Latin America, it doesn’t plan to roll out the same functionality in the U.S. until Congress removes some uncertainty around the VPPA.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill┬áthat would amend the VPPA, but concerns from certain Congressmen could require users to explicitly opt-in each time they want to share what they’re watching. The bill, HR 2471, would clarify what is now ambiguous language about when and how users share their viewing information. In particular, it seeks to amend the type of disclosure necessary for companies like Facebook, Hulu and others to make such information available to others:

“to any person with the informed, written consent (including through an electronic means using the Internet) of the consumer given at one or both of the following times:

(i) The time the disclosure is sought.
(ii) In advance for a set period of time or until consent is withdrawn by such consumer.”

In other words, the amendment as it stands would now let users opt-in once to sharing information with friends and social networks. That is, until they withdraw such consent, or decide they don’t want to share anymore.

That would be a boon for Hulu, Netflix and other video distributors which seek to connect with Facebook’s Open Graph. But some Congressman have expressed concern about the lack of privacy oversight that comes from enacting such an amendment. In particular, Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia and Congressman Mel Watts from North Carolina had voiced some concerns about the bill during the mark up hearing.

According to Tech of the Hub:

“Congressman Watts is concerned the current bill trades convenience at the expense of privacy. He offered an amendment to require a consumer’s permission explicitly each time video viewing data is shared as opposed to the current bill’s up-front one-time consent… Watts stated the bill ‘does not adequately address the realities of privacy in this age of instant and wide-spread information distribution and consumption.'”

Those concerns are due to the “dynamic nature of friend lists on social networks as well as the lack of safeguards for children.” Under Netflix’s current proposed implementation of Facebook Connect, for instance, only the Netflix account holder would be able to share his or her viewing history on the social network. But many Netflix accounts are shared within a household, which means that the history of multiple users could be broadcast under a single Facebook account — and as a result, a child’s viewing history can be shared without any controls placed on it.

It’s not clear which, if any, version of the bill will be put forward or if it will be passed. But it’s important to note the concerns about the effect that the sort of frictionless sharing would have on social networks, particularly as Netflix, Hulu and others haven’t implemented a satisfactory way to enable multiple Facebook-authenticated users to share the same account.