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Netflix-Facebook bill passes U.S. House without email privacy protections

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would make it easier for Web users to share on social networks the videos they’ve watched or recommend. But privacy advocates have criticized the House for excluding provisions that would have prevented law enforcement from viewing citizens’ emails and other online documents without a search warrant.

Passed by a voice vote, the bill, H.R. 6671, amends the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) to allow companies like Netflix to enable users to opt-in to sharing which movies or TV shows they’ve watched with friends on Facebook or other social networks through the Web. In its current form, the VPPA requires written consent in order for a video rental or streaming service to disclose customers’ rental histories.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), a sponsor of H.R. 6671, says the bill is a win for “social media users, especially young people” and a necessary move to bring legislation into the current technological age.

“Social media users, especially young people, do not understand why they cannot share information about their favorite movies or TV shows in the same way that they can music or books,” said Goodlatte in a statement. “H.R. 6671 preserves careful protections for consumers’ privacy while modernizing the law to empower consumers to do more with their video consumption preferences, including sharing favorite TV shows or recently watched movies via social media networks in a simple way.”

Though more lax than the VPPA, H.R. 6671 contains built-in privacy protections that were not included in a similar bill, H.R. 2471, passed by the House a year ago. The new version requires online video services to provide “clear and conspicuous” ways for users to opt-out of sharing at any time. And it mandates that the opt-in automatically expires after two years, at which point users will have to reconfirm their opt-in status.

“This bipartisan bill is truly pro-consumer and places the decision of whether or not to share video rentals with one’s friends squarely in the hands of the consumer,” Goodlatte said.

The bill passed by the House this week has upset citizen protection groups like the American Civil Liberties Union because it does not include a provision added to the original version by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have updated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) to require law enforcement to obtain a probable-cause search warrant before accessing citizens’ online communications, like email or instant messages, or files stored with cloud storage services, like Dropbox.

“Changes to electronic privacy cannot happen piecemeal,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, in a statement. “If we are to achieve true reform – which means getting full protection for Americans’ in-boxes and private communication – we cannot give priority to special interests. If they want updates to our privacy laws, they should have to wait in line with the American people.”

In its current form, the ECPA allows law enforcement to access citizens’ files and communications stored by a third party for more than 180 days with a subpoena, not a search warrant.

H.R. 6671 will now head to the Senate, where, according to The Hill, it is expected to be considered within weeks.