Netflix sued over privacy concerns

An in-the-closet lesbian woman claims that Netflix exposed her sexuality, and she’s now leading a class action lawsuit against the mail-order rental company, Wired reports.

The allegations stem from Netflix’s movie recommendation contest, which offered $1 million to the first person or group that could improve the site’s suggestion algorithm by 10 percent. Contestants received 100 million movie ratings from 480,000 customers, along with the date of the rating, a description of the movie and a unique ID number for each subscriber.

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The contest ended in June, and the winner, a group called BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, was officially announced in September. But privacy scholars warned that the information used in the contest, though anonymous, could still be linked with actual users. Two University of Texas researchers accomplished this by cross-checking anonymous Netflix reviews against reviews posted on the Internet Movie Database. Using this information, the researchers were able to learn the political affiliations and sexual orientations of some users, among other things.

Enter “Jane Doe,” whose name appears atop the class action lawsuit. “The member’s movie data exposes a Netflix member’s personal interest and/or struggles with various highly personal issues, including sexuality, mental illness, recovery from alcoholism, and victimization from incest, physical abuse, domestic violence, adultery, and rape,” says the lawsuit.

Video rental history is actually well-protected under United States law. That’s because more than 20 years ago, when judge Robert Bork was being considered for Supreme Court justice, his rental record was revealed in a newspaper article. This was under the pretense that Bork reportedly said Americans’ privacy rights are limited to what is conferred in legislation. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed a law to keep video rental history private.

The lawsuit seeks $2,500 in damages for each of Netflix’s 2 million customers. However, I highly doubt customers would see anywhere near that much money, even if the case went to trial. More importantly, the plaintiffs want to stop Netflix from releasing a second set of data for yet another contest, including ZIP codes, genders, ages and all the information from the original contest.

I don’t want Netflix to pay out the nose for this lawsuit — that money’s better spent improving the service — but I can sympathize with someone who feels like their privacy is being violated. At the very least, Netflix should let people opt out of having their information in the next contest. Having users feel safer in selecting movies to rent is more important than getting a slightly better recommendation from a computer algorithm.