Monday, January 4, 2010

My dirty secret: I watched Brokeback Mountain

More gay lawsuit media panic!

Earlier this month, a group of people filed a class action lawsuit against Netflix for releasing private information about Netflix users. One of the plaintiffs ("Jane Doe") is described in the complaint as "a lesbian, who does not what her sexuality nor interests in gay and lesbian themed films broadcast to the world". Much like the "Ron Livingston Sues Wikipedia For Calling Him Gay" drama (which was probably more about him being stalked and impersonated online than it was about gay rumors), the media is having a field day with this story:
Can Your Netflix Queue Reveal Sexual Orientation? [Switched]

Netflix Spilled Your Brokeback Mountain Secret, Lawsuit Claims [Wired]

Can Netflix Tell If You're Gay By the Movies You Rent? [The Frisky]

Netflix Revealed Lesbian Mom’s L Word Habit, Lawsuit Claims [Autostraddle]

Lesbian Sues Netflix Amid Privacy Concerns [Tom's Guide]
Netflix: Outing the Gay and Lesbian Community Since 2006 [Glass Houses]
Now, if you were to only read the titles of the articles covering this lawsuit, you would think that Jane Doe was the only plaintiff in the case and that the main issue was her secret homosexuality. Yet there are actually three other plaintiffs who are suing on behalf of more than 2 million Netflix customers.

Here's what actually happened: In September 2006, Netflix started a contest to create a movie recommendation algorithm that was more accurate than Netflix's own. They gave contestants "anonymized" data on 480,000 customers, including 100 million movie ratings, the date of the rating, subscriber IDs and other movie info, but according to the lawsuit the data wasn't anonymized enough. Shortly after the contest began, two researchers from the University of Texas compared the Netflix data to reviews posted in IMDB and were able to identify several Netflix users, including their political leanings and sexual orientation. (The contest was eventually won by "BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos", a team lead by AT&T researchers.)

The lawsuit has two main goals: First, to receive damages due to the fact that Netflix released personal data (that they should've known would be identifiable) therefore violating their privacy policy. Second, to try and stop Netflix from launching its next contest which would give out even more user information such as zip codes, ages and gender - making it even easier to identify users.

Now this sounds like a legitimate lawsuit about a pretty broad privacy violation... so why is the media selling it as a "OMG they made me look gay" panic story? Because between the straight forward (no pun intended) privacy issues, there is something referred to as "The 'Brokeback Mountain' Factor". No really, that's what they called it.

Here are some actual quotes from the complaint (pdf):
To some, renting a movie such as “Brokeback Mountain” or even “The Passion of the Christ” can be a personal issue that they would not want published to the world. [...]
A Netflix member’s movie data may reveal that member’s private information such as sexuality, religious beliefs, or political affiliations. Such data may also reveal a member’s personal struggles with issues such as domestic violence, adultery, alcoholism, or substance abuse. [...]
On a number of occasions, Plaintiff Doe has rented movies listed in the “Gay & Lesbian” section of Netflix’s movie categories. On other occasions, she has searched for and rented specific titles of movies that would be considered to be “gay-themed.”
Now, Plaintiff Doe does have a point... sort of. Sexual orientation is something that people might want to keep private and there are some people who might judge you based solely on your movie rentals. But the real issue here is the fact that Netflix revealed private information, period, not that renting gay-ish movies is some kind of shameful activity. I mean Brokeback Mountain won three Oscars (and was nominated for eight - the most that year) as well as a slew of other awards and accolades. It was ranked eighth among the highest-grossing romantic dramas of all time... so I guess there are a lot of people with the same dirty secret.
We're not discounting the fact that there are a lot of homophobic and hateful people out there... we're sure that Plaintiff Doe does have legitimate concerns about the potential harms of being outed, even based on circumstantial "evidence" like renting the L word. But yet, it still puts such a strong focus on sexual orientation needing to be kept secret, which is really only one piece of private information that Netflix potentially revealed and that is the issue. The privacy breech, not the gayness.

And yes, there are some bigoted people out there who might make judgments based on one's movie rentals, but really... since when do you have to be gay to enjoy a "gay-themed" movie like Brokeback Mountain? How much does your rental history really say about you? I can only imagine what one assumptions one might make about me based on my own viewing habits.

Let's take a look. Here is a recent sampling of my Blockbuster.com queue (sorry, no Netflix, so unfortunately I won't be seeing a penny of whatever settlement they come to):
Lord only knows what assumptions someone might make about me based on that list. Not only might you think I'm gay, but you might also suspect that I was a thirteen year old girl or that I had a crush on Jason Statham. (For the record: only one of those things is actually true.)

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