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Netflix sued under 1980s video tape rental law

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Netflix is the current king of online video streaming—and being at the top of a market means enduring extra scrutiny from customers and competitors. Last week, former Netflix subscriber Michael Sevy of Michigan filed a lawsuit against Netflix, alleging the company is violating the 1980s-era Video Privacy Protection Act by retaining customer rental histories even after people cancel their Netflix memberships. And Sevy isn’t alone: according to Cnet, four similar lawsuits have been levied against Netflix in the last two months.

The suits all proceed from the same basis: that Netflix is retaining records of customers who cancel their membership, including rental histories by also things like credit card numbers.

The Video Privacy Protection Act (VPAA) was enacted by the U.S. Congress all the way back in 1988 (yes, the Reagan administration) and forbids “wrongful disclosure of video tape rental or sale records.” The law was passed after Robert Bork’s (innocuous) video rental history was revealed while he was a nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States. The VPAA was also used in a 2008 suit against Blockbuster over the distribution of customer rental and sales information via Facebook’s controversial Beacon program.

Netflix has not commented on the suit; however, in the past Netflix has indicated it retains customer rental histories as data for its movie recommendation services. Netflix has faced criticism in the past for rental information available via its recommendation engine—even shuttering a second contest to improve recommendation results over privacy concerns. The company has not indicated whether whether any data it retains is anonymized.