Netflix users outside the United States have long enjoyed integration with Facebook that let them share their viewing history with friends, but American Netflix users are only just this week getting to enjoy the same social sharing features.
Why did it take so long? You can blame Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan's 1987 nominee to the Supreme Court.
Let's rewind history a bit: During Bork's confirmation process, his video rental history was leaked and published by the Washington, D.C.-area Washington City Paper. Bork's rentals were uncontroversial and the leak had little impact on his nomination — the Senate voted against his confirmation, but that had more to do with his views on civil and women's rights than his taste in films.
Despite the inconsequential impact of Bork's leaked rental history on his confirmation process, members of Congress decided to take action. Congress passed and Reagan signed the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) in 1988, which prohibits "wrongful disclosure of video tape rental or sale records" and carries a $2,500 fine. It also covered "similar audio visual materials," which meant it was destined to impact future technologies — including Netflix and Facebook.
One of social media's early entanglements with the VPPA came in 2008, when Blockbuster was sued over releasing customer records to Facebook for integration with Facebook Beacon — which itself has been regarded as one of Facebook's biggest privacy missteps. Netflix was ensnared in the VPPA a year later in a lawsuit over the Netflix Prize, a crowdsourced competition to discover the best algorithms for predicting how a Netflix user would rate a given movie given users' past viewing history. Netflix settled that lawsuit out of court in 2010. Another VPPA-based lawsuit brought against Netflix and settled in 2012 resulted in the company changing its privacy policies.
Netflix first announced integration with Facebook in September of 2011 — but only for users in Canada and Latin America (it would later expand the feature globally). Why wasn't the United States included in the rollout? Netflix blamed the VPPA.
Unfortunately, we will not be offering this feature in the U.S. because a 1980’s law creates some confusion over our ability to let U.S. members automatically share the television shows and movies they watch with their friends on Facebook. We’ll continue to look at these issues and find ways to bring you the easy, convenient and quality experiences you have come to expect, including ways to automatically share with your friends on Facebook.
The company immediately began lobbying Congress for a "Netflix amendment" to the VPPA that would allow social sharing in the U.S. That process took place in slow-motion: The House of Representatives first passed such an amendment in 2011, but it would be another year before the Senate passed an updated version that included consumer consent and opt-out requirements. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) attempted to attach marginally related legislation that would have required law enforcement to get a warrant before reading citizens' emails, but that wasn't included in the final package and is still being debated today.
Ultimately, Netflix's efforts paid off: The "Netflix amendment" was passed by Congress in December of 2012 and signed into law by President Obama the next month. Since then, American Netflix users have been legally able to automatically share their viewing history on Facebook on an opt-in bases — putting video consumption in line with other media, including news articles and music. It took Netflix two more months to introduce the feature, which comes with updates not previously available even outside the U.S.