Netflix Sued for Revealing Sexual Orientation by Movie Choices

Mar 9, 2010

By Kerrie Spencer, staff technology writer – March 9, 2010Movie Selections Exposure Sexual Orientation

While it’s nice to have a privacy policy, those who hold contests should really pay attention to just what they’re doing when they release private customer information.

You knew this had to happen, didn’t you? Everywhere you look, every site you surf, every doctor, dentist, accountant, educational institution and lawyer you know must adhere to privacy policies and not divulge information about people they serve. Evidently Netflix wasn’t too careful about personal information they released for a contest they held recently – and may hold a reprise of in the future.

Just what is personal information anyhow? It’s usually defined as the “first name or initial and last name in combination with one or more private pieces of information such as: a social security number, a driver’s license number/state identification card, financial account number, credit card/debit card number with passwords or security codes.”

Good enough place to start, so let’s have a look at the Netflix contest and see what happened. Netflix is an online DVD movie rental company who wanted to hold a contest to get general public algorithms to let them improve their ability to suggest other movies people may like to see. Not a bad idea on the surface, until you find out that to hold this contest, they handed out a whole whack of data that detailed users’ ratings about past movies they had watched.

There were a lot of contest entries to define a better algorithm, and why not? The prize was $1 million and it would go to the group of researchers whose predictions about a different set of ratings that were predicated on the same user information turned out to be the most accurate. Nice prize for being able to predict what a movie viewer would like to see next.

For all intents and purposes, the users were supposed to be anonymous, thanks to other measures the company took, and were assigned a number only – and that was it. That means Netflix was in sync with just about every privacy policy on planet Earth. So how come someone sued Netflix for a breach of privacy?

In a “truth is stranger than fiction” moment, a woman sued Netflix for making it public knowledge that she was a lesbian. The mother, whose name is not even mentioned in the lawsuit because she doesn’t want anyone to know her sexual preferences, alleges this contest was a violation of her privacy and that it caused psychological and economic harm.

Right about now you’re likely wondering how on earth anyone would know she was a lesbian and how could anyone even begin to figure that out. Turns out it wasn’t that hard to figure out, as people could find out specific users’ identities by matching up their Netflix ratings and reviews with some of the signed ones posted on the online movie database. Who on earth would go to that kind of trouble to figure out if a customer was a lesbian boggles the imagination, but evidently someone did.

The lawsuit filed by this anonymous woman says that by making all their data known to others, Netflix violated the stringent provisions of the Video Privacy Protection Act. By the way, that act was put into place as a direct result of people finding out what the movie selections of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork were. Those were snagged from a video store and must have been somewhat controversial, or there wouldn’t have been an Act passed to ban people from getting that information.

The winner of the first contest went home a happy camper and $1 million richer. There are now cyber-rumors that Netflix is going to hold a second contest to once again tweak its prediction algorithms. This time they’re indicating they will make sure that user data remains anonymous and only release their zip codes, gender and date of birth. Really? Stay tuned for the next installment in this lawsuit saga which will likely feature yet another Netflix user suing for violation of their privacy.


The views expressed in this article may not reflect the views of Legal News Archive or any of its holdings, affiliates, or advertisers.