Keeping college students’ streaming habits private

Higher ed institutions can help protect this highly sought data
By: | Issue: December, 2018
November 23, 2018

Video has emerged as the dominant data type in higher ed. Long-form entertainment video from platforms such as Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu and Amazon Prime are coursing through the network infrastructure for student consumption.

Millennials are the largest living generation in the world, and there is tremendous interest in finding out what they watch to exploit their spending habits.

Experts concerned with student privacy are particularly concerned about video choices as they are rich sources of personal preferences that do not require sophisticated data techniques to recognize.

The titles of shows, movies, sports and news programs that we watch, and when we watch them, provide insights about us.

Video represents the fastest-growing and the easiest-to-decode data that we leave behind—but through a quirk of history, it is one of the most protected by U.S. law.

Back to Bork

The Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) is a decade older than the more famous, but no more powerful, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The VPPA passed in 1988 in direct response to an awkward moment during Judge Robert Bork’s contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings. An article appeared that included his entire video rental history from his local video store.

A store clerk provided Bork’s rental history to Washington City Paper reporter Michael Dolan, who claimed he was researching the film preferences of a potential Supreme Court justice.

In fact, Dolan, who was writing a story critical of Bork’s position that privacy was not a constitutional right, wanted to illustrate the lack of protection.

While privacy advocates at the time had also debated the sensitivity of library book checkouts, magazine subscriptions and bookstore purchases, the high-profile exposure of a public figure’s video rentals prompted immediate congressional action.

Bork went down for other reasons, but Congress, on a bipartisan vote, passed the VPPA, prohibiting providers from sharing videotape rental information.

This forward-looking law, enacted before the internet existed, has been applied throughout the evolution of delivery systems and significantly restricts the actions of Netflix, Hulu, Facebook and Google.

Why video?

The congressional speeches made when the VPPA passed show agreement about two truths exposed at the dawn of on-demand video consumption: It is prolific and personal.

The original legislative action and the court rulings since have never wavered in their severe regard for the privacy of our entertainment choices, even as the delivery systems change.

These consumer protections hold particular importance for college students because they are among the most valuable targets for consumer product companies, political campaigns and identity theft.

However, content providers such as Netflix have been successful in advocating for revisions that narrow the VPPA and allow the user to provide permission to waive their right to block sharing.

As corporations target student metadata, universities have an increasing role in helping to protect students’ privacy.

Comprehensive campus data-governance policies have expanded their scope to help students make more informed decisions when they face pop-up agreements asking them to waive their rights.

Where will the mix of zettabytes of entertainment video, the most prominent content companies in the world, and the judgment of our student consumers go next? The next season of VPPA is on my watchlist.


Sean Brown, with years of experience in academic video production, is a consultant with Minneapolis-based Contegy Digital.