Privacy Wars: Netflix, Facebook and the 'Brokeback Mountain Effect'

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Privacy Wars: Netflix, Facebook and the 'Brokeback Mountain Effect'

Fri Dec 18, 2009 @ 09:15AM PST

By Eriq Gardner

Brokeback Will "Brokeback Mountain" shape rules concerning the responsibility of websites to guard user privacy?

The debate over privacy on the Internet got much louder yesterday when a group of privacy advocate organizations filed a complaint with the FTC over recent changes made by Facebook to user information seen by the public. Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit was filed yesterday against Netflix for breaking various privacy codes when the video rental service held a contest and released information about its users' preferences.

Let's take the Netflix case first — a possible path-breaking piece of litigation that has the potential to influence the Facebook debate.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of individuals lead by a Jane Doe who identifies herself only as a lesbian. In the complaint, the plaintiffs take issue with a contest that Netflix ran in October 2006 where the company offered $1 million to anybody who could come up with an algorithm to improve upon its movie recommendation engine by 10 percent. Netflix opened the contest to the public and gave participants a lot of data, including 100 million subscriber movie ratings.

A few weeks after the contest began, researchers at the University of Texas published a paper entitled, "How to Break Anonymity of the Netflix Prize Dataset," describing a method of unmasking that compared Netflix ratings with those made on Internet Movie Database. The researchers wrote they were able to uncover political preferences and other sensitive information of its users. 

The plaintiffs call this the "Brokeback Mountain Factor," referring to an idea that anybody who has the movie in their queue is more likely to be homosexual. (Last year, we wrote a cover article for Psychology Today describing how scientists were using taste preferences to glean revealing information about individuals.) 

The lawsuit argues that Netflix broke its own privacy policy, seeks $2,500 in damages for each of its more than 2 million users, and asks for an enjoinment from launching a second contest that will give out user data including ZIP codes, age, and gender with movie ratings.

The same day this lawsuit was filed, the FTC got a complaint over recent changes made by Facebook that has opened up to the public user information including names, friends and fan pages. The filing includes quotes by aggrieved users but is somewhat short on real examples of the damage potentially caused to Facebook's users.

We're guessing that some will soon connect the dots here and push the FTC to recognize threats of data mining in the alleged privacy breach.

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The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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