What the Video Privacy Protection Act Means for Streaming TV

Rob Hazan, VP of product, streaming TV
The Video Privacy Protection Act, commonly known as the Blockbuster law after the video rental store you may remember, was passed 36 years ago in 1988. What does a nearly four-decades-old law about a defunct service have to do with today’s streaming TV market? Believe it or not, a lot. Rob Hazan, VP of product, streaming TV at Index Exchange, explains how the Video Privacy Protection Act applies to streaming media and lasting impact it has on the industry today.

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The Video Privacy Protection Act and streaming TV

While the original purpose of the decades-old Video Privacy Protection Act, or VPPA, was to protect the privacy of consumers from unwanted disclosures of their video rental history, it actually has lasting impacts still felt by the streaming TV industry today.

VPPA came about to prevent linking someone’s personally identifiable information, or PII, to their video rental history. The law prohibits “video tape service providers” from disclosing video consumption info that’s linked to PII without consumer consent.

Back then, for rental companies like Blockbuster, that meant they could disclose that someone rented a VHS copy of “Knight Rider” starring David Hasselhoff, or that I, Rob, rented a video, but not that I rented “Knight Rider.” It’s the match between PII and specific video consumption that’s the problem.

How does the Video Privacy Protection Act apply to our modern streaming and digital world?

VPPA restricts the behavior of “video tape service providers,” defined as anyone who rents, sells, or delivers “prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio-visual materials directly to the consumer.” Since streaming services deliver “audio-visual materials” via the internet, they, as of now, technically count.

It’s of note that interpretation here is often murky, and different media owners might interpret their obligations to the law in different ways. For instance, when it comes to free streaming services, it’s debatable whether someone can be described as a “consumer” if they have not exchanged money for the service.

There’s also a gray area in how “directly to the consumer” is interpreted, as today’s downstream use of data throughout the ad tech ecosystem was nonexistent back in 1988, for obvious reasons.

But importantly, many media owners have chosen to err on the side of caution when it comes to VPPA.

Addressability in streaming TV today is usually based on device identifiers, hashed email addresses, or IP addresses, which can be interpreted as PII. In the most common interpretation of programmers’ obligations to the law, a programmatic bid request can’t include both a user ID and show-level data—basically, shared viewership data can’t be linked to an individual or a specific device.

This is the key takeaway—given their current interpretations, many media owners cannot provide PII alongside show-level data.

This interpretation has wide implications for how media owners treat transparency and content signals. It affects how media owners sell and report on streaming TV inventory.

Media buyers want to know where their ads are running, just as they do in traditional TV campaigns, and who they’re reaching to serve the right ad at the right time. They want show-level data.

But many programmers cite VPPA as a primary reason why they are not comfortable sharing show-level transparency within bidstream data.

If anything, this trajectory will only go in one direction as time progresses—towards more privacy for consumers. The march toward privacy can be seen in other areas of programmatic, such as the deprecation of third-party cookies in web. Because of VPPA, streaming TV has had privacy at the forefront from the beginning.

The future of transparency and privacy in streaming TV

What does the future of transparency in streaming look like, knowing that VPPA isn’t going away?

It’s important for buyers to understand that you can still achieve everything you’d want to in linear TV, it’s just the how that looks a little different in streaming.

The industry will need to foster tighter collaboration between buyers and sellers to understand buyers’ desired outcomes, and then structure buys in a way that achieves those outcomes without compromising consumer privacy.

Tech partners should be aware of the law and its complexity and review their processes to ensure they provide the requisite privacy controls. For example, supply can be packaged up for a buyer based on whatever dimensions are most important to their objectives by using deal IDs.

This would enable a buyer to effectively pre-target the collection of shows or particular genre that they seek, activated on the sell side and wrapped in a deal ID, while leaving the raw show-level information disconnected from PII in the bid request.

VPPA is a decades-old law that continues to impact transparency and privacy in streaming. And until the day it goes through the courts and is potentially challenged, if you choose to lean on the side of caution as so many have, please know you can also lean on your programmatic partners to do the heavy lifting to keep you in compliance while driving the outcomes you seek.

Learn more about the streaming TV opportunity.

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