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Netflix pulls some Big Brother nonsense with your data



Image: vicky leta/mashable



Netflix watches you, too.

The streaming service sent what it probably thought was an innocuous-enough tweet Saturday night, ribbing a few dozen of its users for partaking in a holiday-inspired B-movie binge.    

We reached out to a Netflix rep, who confirmed the tweet is accurate: 53 people have watched A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days. Imagine being one of them right now.

This is nakedly dystopic messaging from a secretive internet video company that collects reams of data from 109 million subscribers — and rarely gives us a peek behind its curtain. I mean, jeez, Netflix is offering tinsel-dusted gruel on its platform and mocking people who consume said gruel every single day (for 18 days). As if there’s a “correct” way to watch a mildly uplifting Christmas movie in an era when death by nuclear hellfire seems more assured with each passing second.

To make a very obvious point: Online platforms like Netflix collect a lot of data about users. It’s why automated recommendations work so well. Netflix knows what you watch and how often you do so, and it can weigh that information against data from millions of other people to serve content you’re more likely to enjoy. 

We accept this arrangement because it benefits us — we can access huge libraries of online media in seconds, and those libraries are tailor-fit to our preferences — and also because we’re not usually  confronted with less savory aspects of the arrangement. In particular, we’d normally assume corporations wouldn’t draw abstract conclusions from and leverage data points against consumers.

So much for that. In one silly tweet, Netflix identified the viewing habits of an alarmingly small portion of its userbase — again, 53 people from a pool of more than 109 million — and it judged those people. (They’re “hurt.”)

Don’t roll your eyes

Yeah, this tweet is ridiculous and anonymized and maybe not a big deal unto itself. It’s also a peek behind the veil. If, down the line, a company like Netflix (or Hulu, or Spotify) wanted to make a personal or political point about your data, technically it could! We shouldn’t assume that laws favoring consumer privacy are permanent, that Netflix data will always be anonymized to an extent, or that the internet will continue to operate on the terms to which we’re accustomed (see: net neutrality).

As Nilay Patel remarked Monday, Netflix actually lobbied against a law intended to protect consumer privacy in 2013. The Video Privacy Protection Act was established in 1988 to prevent video rental stores from disclosing customer records, but as the Washington Post explained, it also stopped Netflix from sharing viewer data with Facebook. Netflix reportedly asked users to pressure elected officials about the legislation, and it was amended in the company’s favor in 2013. Then the data flowed.

So, things certainly can change given enough pressure and a business-friendly atmosphere. The tweet’s a joke, but not a very funny one if you consider what could easily lie ahead for consumers online: less privacy and more powerful corporations. 

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