David Zax

A View from David Zax

I Want Frictionless Privacy

Netflix now allows frictionless sharing of the movies you watch on Facebook.

  • March 13, 2013

Back in 2011, following Facebook’s F8 developers conference, a new phrase began to buzz: “frictionless sharing.” Soon, news-sharing apps proliferated with Facebook, which enabled automatic posting of articles you were reading to your news feed. More famously, Spotify originally required users to register via their Facebook account. Spotify claimed that it was all just to make things simpler for the user: “As most of our users are already social and have already connected to Facebook, it seemed logical to integrate Spotify and Facebook logins,” the company said in a statement. But the move was transparently to create viral buzz in Facebook news feeds. Pretty soon, my feed was full of the unneeded “news” that Joe was listening to Kanye, while Kate was listening to Madonna. My listening habits were likewise broadcast, and though I think I’ve disabled them, I’m not entirely sure (last I checked, the Spotify iPhone app’s privacy settings remained a bit opaque to me).

For those of us who don’t feel that our web activity needs to be published for all to see, all this “frictionless sharing” was really adding friction–friction in our quest to retain privacy. We had to go under the hood and tell Spotify what not to post. An expectation of privacy online was no longer the norm; it was the exception.

So it was wearily that I found today’s news that Netflix would be pulling a Spotify. Following an alteration in an American law that had prohibited the disclosure of movie rental records, Facebook would be integrating with Facebook, rolling out the option to all users within the week.

Crucially, though, Netflix has taken steps to make privacy the norm. First, unlike Spotify, Netflix of course won’t be requiring new users to register via Facebook (even Spotify finally abandoned this strategy, reportedly). Second, even if Netflix users do choose to pair their Netflix and Facebook accounts, users get to dictate the extent of their sharing. Once they pair their accounts, the social features only go into effect on their Netflix homepage–friends’ recommendations and recent viewings will show up in special rows (as will your recs and history show up in theirs). There’s the option to mark anything you watch as not to be shared.

Second, and most important, Netflix won’t post anything to your Facebook timeline unless you tell them to. The default option is to not share your viewing history with Facebook. You have to go under the hood to turn that feature on. Friends won’t have to wonder about your weeklong binge on Chevy Chase movies–unless you really want them to.

Cameron Johnson, Facebook’s Director of Product Innovation, lays the new features out in this video.

Overall, Netflix seems to be going about this the right way. The fact that it doesn’t automatically post to your Timeline is most important; in my opinion, such postings should actually always be intentional (I’m actually puzzled at the mindset of my friends who blithely broadcast what they listen to and watch without restraint). Netflix might go even further by allowing you to receive recommendations from friends while disabling their ability to view yours. While such behavior might be selfish, users ought to have the option.

Still, this is a step in the right direction, and one Spotify–and Facebook–could learn from. Web services should err on the side of privacy, and err on the side of clarity about sharing policies. I may be a huge fan of “Fletch,” but the world doesn’t need to know it.

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