Patreon: Blocking platforms from sharing user video data is unconstitutional

Patreon, a monetization platform for content creators, has asked a federal judge to deem unconstitutional a rarely invoked law that some privacy advocates consider one of the nation’s “strongest protections of consumer privacy against a specific form of data collection.” Such a ruling would end decades that the US spent carefully shielding the privacy of millions of Americans’ personal video viewing habits.

The Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) blocks businesses from sharing data with third parties on customers’ video purchases and rentals. At a minimum, the VPPA requires written consent each time a business wants to share this sensitive video data—including the title, description, and, in most cases, the subject matter.

The VPPA was passed in 1988 in response to backlash over a reporter sharing the video store rental history of a judge, Robert Bork, who had been nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan. The report revealed that Bork apparently liked spy thrillers and British costume dramas and suggested that maybe the judge had a family member who dug John Hughes movies.

Although the videos that Bork rented “revealed nothing particularly salacious” about the judge, the intent of reporting the “Bork Tapes” was to confront the judge “with his own vulnerability to privacy harms” during a time when the Supreme Court nominee had “criticized the constitutional right to privacy” as “a loose canon in the law,” Harvard Law Review noted.

Even though no harm was caused by sharing the “Bork Tapes,” policymakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that First Amendment protections ought to safeguard the privacy of people’s viewing habits, or else risk chilling their speech by altering their viewing habits. The US government has not budged on this stance since, supporting a lawsuit filed in 2022 by Patreon users who claimed that while no harms were caused, damages are owed after Patreon allegedly violated the VPPA by sharing data on videos they watched on the platform with Facebook through Meta Pixel without users’ written consent.

“Restricting the ability of those who possess a consumer’s video purchase, rental, or request history to disclose such information directly advances the goal of keeping that information private and protecting consumers’ intellectual freedom,” the Department of Justice’s brief said.

The Meta Pixel is a piece of code used by companies like Patreon to better target content to users by tracking their activity and monitoring conversions on Meta platforms. “In simplest terms,” Patreon users said in an amended complaint, “the Pixel allows Meta to know what video content one of its users viewed on Patreon’s website.”

The Pixel is currently at the center of a pile of privacy lawsuits, where people have accused various platforms of using the Pixel to covertly share sensitive data without users’ consent, including health and financial data.

Several lawsuits have specifically lobbed VPPA claims, which users have argued validates the urgency of retaining the VPPA protections that Patreon now seeks to strike. The DOJ argued that “the explosion of recent VPPA cases” is proof “that the disclosures the statute seeks to prevent are a legitimate concern,” despite Patreon’s arguments that the statute does “nothing to materially or directly advance the privacy interests it supposedly was enacted to protect.”

Patreon’s attack on the VPPA

Patreon has argued in a recent court filing that the VPPA was not enacted to protect average video viewers from embarrassing and unwarranted disclosures but “for the express purpose of silencing disclosures about political figures and their video-watching, an issue of undisputed continuing public interest and concern.”

That’s one of many ways that the VPPA silences speech, Patreon argued, by allegedly preventing disclosures regarding public figures that are relevant to public interest.

Among other “fatal flaws,” Patreon alleged, the VPPA “restrains speech” while “doing little if anything to protect privacy” and never protecting privacy “by the least restrictive means.”

Patreon claimed that the VPPA is too narrow, focusing only on pre-recorded videos. It prevents video service providers from disclosing to any other person the titles of videos that someone watched, but it does not necessarily stop platforms from sharing information about “the genres, performers, directors, political views, sexual content, and every other detail of pre-recorded video that those consumers watch,” Patreon claimed.

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