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Tweet Causes Criticism but Did Netflix Do Anything Wrong?

Netflix has been coming under criticism after a cheeky tweet revealed that the film and TV streaming giant is actively tracking its customers' viewing habits. This should probably come as no surprise - considering that the company needs to understand viewer habits and preferences in order to decide what content it should invest in when making Netflix Originals.

Despite this seemingly obvious fact, many Netflix customers have been voicing their anger. Perhaps it was how the tracking was revealed that's why it has been construed as so distasteful. The Tweet in question appeared on Netflix’s official Twitter account over the weekend. It was taken by many people to be an insult directed at 53 Netflix subscribers.

The tweet was in reference to its Christmas special: a Netflix original called The Christmas Prince. The official message said:

“To the 53 people who've watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”

Weighing It Up

Despite all the hoopla about the comment, I can’t help but feel that on this occasion Netflix deserves a break. After all, it seems pretty natural that it would want to monitor statistics about who watches what, when, and where. Most online firms that provide videos, news, or other content tend to keep an eye on their audience.

News companies like to know which articles are most popular and who is reading them, in part to make future editorial decisions about which stories to cover. In addition, they seek information to better target adverts. This is why many news websites ask people to disable their ad blocker before they can see the news on their site. Those adverts are the only revenue stream keeping the website afloat. Without that revenue, they wouldn't be able to keep providing the service.

Whether you agree with this kind of behavior or not is up to you. Around 20% of US internet users use some form of ad blocker, indicating their distaste for targeted advertising of this nature. That's fine - you have the right to stop adverts being targeted at you. In fact, we often recommend ad blockers and other anti-tracking services here at BestVPN.com (including Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and browser extensions such as EFF's privacy badger).

Privacy Badger

No Malicious Intent

When it comes to Netflix, the company isn't using information about customers to directly serve adverts. Netflix is compiling it to understand what video streaming content is popular and what isn't. It's the modern-day equivalent of TV ratings, only much more precise. Netflix can use everybody's metrics to influence its decision-making process.

Netflix Tweet

Who's Complaining?

The Netflix tweet has been referred to as a “creepy” joke. In reality, however, nobody knows who the 53 people who watched A Christmas Prince for 18 consecutive days actually are. If a Netflix employee had leaked the names of those 53 people - or a hacker had stolen a database with those names on it and published them online - I would be the first to criticize Netflix and the resultant invasion of privacy that it had caused.

However, on this occasion, I'm going to hazard the guess that the majority of the people mentioned in the tweet didn't feel particularly insulted. When my little sister got Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on VHS for her birthday (back in the 1990s), she went on to watch that video every single day for well over a month. With that in mind, I am pretty certain that the vast majority of the “insulted” 53 people are actually children. In my opinion, rather than feeling insulted, those parents are much more likely to be thanking Netflix for keeping their little ones so well entertained!

Children Watching Tv

Why the Fuss?

Privacy is incredibly important, and people are right not to expect their every move to be cataloged. When we entrust our data to a particular firm, we don't expect it to sell that private data to a third party to create an extra revenue stream. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge that firms are likely to do some sort of noninvasive analysis of their clientele (preferably anonymized). 

On this occasion, some people simply took a joke out of context. Perhaps it wasn’t the best joke ever made, but personally I found it pretty amusing. Netflix really didn’t do much wrong. Nobody’s privacy was directly harmed; Netflix hasn't revealed the identity of those 53 individuals who keep watching The Christmas Prince.

In fact, we don’t actually know if anybody really watched The Christmas Prince for 18 days in a row at all. After all, the entire thing could easily have been a marketing ploy to advertise Netflix’s Christmas movie.

Warning Sign

Is There Anything to Worry About?

Most of the services we use online keep tabs on what we're doing. When they do this to make their service better, or even just for their own interests, it's not such a terrible sin. That's why I always advise consumers to keep a watchful eye on what online services are doing with their data. If anything seems untoward, vote with your mouse and cancel your subscription.

Although on this occasion I can’t see that it did much wrong, I do have a warning for Netflix: Be careful about how you are compiling and storing this data about your customers. A central server with this kind of data could fall victim to hackers - and if this data isn't kept secure and anonymized, I won't be so kind if it's revealed to the world! 

Opinions are the writer's own.

Title image credit: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock.com

Image credits: EFF's Privacy Badger logo, Netflix tweet from Twitter, stockfour/Shutterstock.com, Aleksandar Levai/Shutterstock.com

Written by: Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh is one of BestVPN's resident VPN experts. Ray is currently ranked #1 VPN authority in the world by agilience.com. During his time at BestVPN.com Ray has reviewed some of the world's foremost VPNs. Ray is an advocate for digital privacy, with vast experience writing about the political and social aspects of infosec, cybersec, and data privacy. Find him @newsglug on Twitter.

4 Comments

  1. john
    on December 14, 2017
    Reply

    Forgot to add to my previous comment about creepy IT guy. After I spoke to a few of the employees, I brought up the matter of VPNs and how they work. A few years later, I ran into an employee at the firm and he told me that nearly everyone was on a VPN. They were quick to adapt but, like the boss, did not fully understand how data moves (and what happens to it) across networks at the time. The company had also written up a privacy policy basically: no spying... Creepy IT guy was still employed (but leopard, spots... tiger, stripes...) Bottom line: people can't be trusted with someone else's personal data. They always use it to empower themselves and, in the case of Netflix, belittle others. There is no accountability when it comes to how this data is handled today and this needs to change.

    1. Ray Walsh replied to john
      on December 15, 2017
      Reply

      Hi John. If you read my article in full you would have noticed a few things. Firstly I explained that when you choose to join a particular service you give that service permission to gather a certain amount of data about you. In the article, I explain that if you select to be the customer of a business with bad practices then you are opening your personal data up to the possibility/probability of bad practice. For this reason, we always encourage people to look closely at the services that they subscribe to and make an informed decision. If that service is doing something untoward with users data then people should vote with their money and stop subscribing. The big question here is: has Netflix done anything wrong by monitoring who watches what on its service? My honest opinion is that it has not done anything wrong. People who subscribe to Netflix pay to have a top-of-the-range video service, the only way for Netflix to provide that service efficiently is for it to understand what its subscribers want. The idea that Netflix would provide its service without keeping a check on what people are watching seems preposterous to me, so as far as I am concerned we did not need this tweet to inform us that Netflix were doing this: we already knew. Anybody that didn't know this was happening is living in Lala land as far as I am concerned. Now to the comment itself. As I explained in the article I wholeheartedly believe that this was a joke, and a funny one. Whether you agree is up to you, but I very much doubt that the parents who have a child who keeps asking to watch The Christmas Prince found the comment insulting. Finally, to the privacy angle. Firstly, nobody's privacy has been violated because the identities of the people who have watched The Christmas Prince for 18 consecutive days have not been published. It could be anyone. It could even be a lie designed to cause all this hoopla. Put it this way - the controversy surrounding this tweet has already caused two of my friends to watch the Christmas Prince: so it is working! However, as I explained in my article: if Netflix is not keeping this data in an anonymized fashion and the data is sitting around attached to names on a server that could be hacked. Or, as you say, it is being abused by Netflix staff in an unfair manner (hard to imagine because the data is pretty far from what I would consider "sensitive") then yes, when and if that happens, I will write an article criticizing Netflix. Did that criticism deserve to be piled on the company for this tweet: as far as I am concerned no. Of course, this was an opinion piece, and this was just my opinion about this particular joke. I do, of course, understand that some people have taken this comment to be insulting and agree that whether the joke is construed as funny or not is completely subjective. I am sure that Netflix has learned a lot from the tweet and is unlikely to make a joke - funny or not - about consumers again.

    2. Ray Walsh replied to john
      on December 15, 2017
      Reply

      Where I do completely agree with you, is that this case does help to shed light on the fact that data is being stored by firms like Netflix - which is why I covered the article. People do deserve to know that data is being stored and used. In addition, as I explain in my article, I do think Netflix needs to be very careful about how it is storing that data about consumers. It should be held in an anonymized fashion and securely or else it could put the firm in a lot more hot water than this tweet did.

  2. john
    on December 14, 2017
    Reply

    > nobody knows who the 53 people who watched A Christmas Prince for 18 consecutive days actually are. I think you mean that the information wasn't exposed, right? It doesn't say anything about who at Netflix has access to this information or how much of it. It could be 80% of the staff. It doesn't speak to unnamed 3rd-parties (and all their employees) Netflix is sharing this information with. I think what happened here was how (potentially) personal and invasive this was. In general, people do not understand the extent of the tracking and data-retention that's going on. They want to believe that personal information is protected somehow. Quick story... I once came across an IT guy who spent a lot of time going through logs and analyzing the sites that both his co-workers and clients were visiting. There was no policy in place. In fact, the entire business was centered on trust and respect. The IT guy used this information to empower himself and this is true... make fun of others behind their backs with the boss. The non-technical boss, who had not previously thought a thing like this was even possible, enjoyed a peak into people's lives. I was visiting for a few days doing some work when the IT guy was boasting about this. On my last day, I mentioned this to a few people. They were devastated. It felt like such an intrusion by someone they *knew*, worked with and trusted. They could only imagine what the boss might have been thinking. People literally lost their minds. This is what happened with the Netflix tweet. It certainly wasn't a nameless entity that tweeted this. It sounded more like a juvenile looking for karma points by embarrassing an individual or group of people. Sounds to me that Netflix employees spend a lot of time 'goofing' on customers, so much so, that within Netflix... this is normal. So much so, that the tweeter (who could have been a low-level intern) exposed the thinking within the company. I don't think this kind of thing needs to be brushed aside and I'm surprised that this site is attempting to do that. It's good that people understand companies are watching everything they do. That they're being track, that data is collected and stored. That all of this is being shared with unnamed 3rd-parties. People tend to react when they feel trust violated. I hope it wakes people up to the kind of surveillance, data-sharing that's going on.

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