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You know the drill: you sit down, pull up your go-to streaming service, and you’re hit with this category: suggested for you. 

Many people think that streaming services have flawless algorithms and marketing data, but that’s not actually the case. In fact, streaming services are mostly barred from distributing data (at least connected with a person's identity or specific identifiers – more on that later) due to a law called the Video Privacy Protection Act, a law passed in 1988. 

So what does this law mean for the modern age of streaming, and how does it affect how marketers can build out audiences and create targeted ads? Read to find out. 

Understanding the VPPA

The VPPA, originally passed in 1988, protects your identity in relation to what videos you rent. The idea is that video rental service or store can’t give out a list of videos you rented along with your name or address. 

Some context: the VPPA came into existence after this exact scenario happened. A video store gave The Washington City Paper a list of videos rented by Supreme Court nominee, Robert Bork. 

Though Bork’s list didn't reveal anything scandalous, Congress acted immediately to stop this situation from repeating itself and showed incredible foresight in crafting a law that would protect users’ video streaming information even as the physical video rental market went by the wayside.

In the modern days of “video rentals,” VPPA advocates have applied this law to streaming services as well, and claiming that streaming services can’t share their data as it relates to a person’s identity. 

This poses a challenge for both the streaming service and marketers, since building audience profiles is a major way of getting ads in front of the right people. 

Today, the law is more relevant than ever because it continues to shape how marketers use streaming and video platforms, and lawsuits have been brought against streaming giants like Hulu, HBO Max, and more. 

Does it Really Apply to Streaming

The law itself also continues to have new applications as technology progresses, leaving some gray areas for streaming entities. 

What's a Subscriber?

The law was written with a membership structure in mind, as it applies to physical video rental stores. As a reminder for those who didn’t live in the video rental days, membership was linked to your personal information and entitled you to rent videos from a brick-and-mortar location, paying either monthly or per item.

Streamers consider a subscriber someone who pays for the service – which is pretty in line with the rental system. However, some disagree with how the law applies to people using free accounts or accessing free platforms. For example, AMC successfully argued that people who watch The Walking Dead online aren’t subscribers simply for visiting the site to watch videos. 

What's an Address?

The law also links a person’s identity and address, and says that data can be provided listing neither as identifiers. 

However, some argue that an email address or IP address can qualify as an address the same way a physical address does. These digital addresses can serve as a stand-in for a physical address and allegedly are unique enough to be identifiers at the same level as a physical address. Therefore, they can’t be shared along with video rental data. 

What's This Mean for Marketers?

Currently, marketers can make decisions based on generalities in data- profiles are not linked to any of the data marketers or anyone else can view. 

Streaming services can provide data in bulk, in groups, or without unique identifiers. For example, Hulu beat a lawsuit that was filed in the name of the VPPA for sharing a video watch page URL along with users’ unique 7-digit identifier.

Why it Matters

Building audience profiles is an important part of digital marketing because it allows marketers to promote content to niche audiences. Many lawsuits attempt to use the law to prohibit any sharing of streaming information. 

As more and more platforms move to video (looking at you, Instagram) the VPPA is going to continue to come up and keep asking us to consider how we watch and share video, and how we as marketers can continue to find the right audiences while still following the law of privacy. 


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