There's a common meme around the internet that says a relationship isn't official until you share your Netflix password, and it isn't over until someone changes it. Sharing Netflix passwords has become common amongst groups of friends who want to use the service but can't afford it. Some people even alternate who pays for Netflix each month so that each person only has to pay a few times per year.
However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ruled in a case that applies to password sharing, making users wonder if this Netflix password community is illegal. Will this put a stop to the internet memes and Netflix circles? Let's dive deeper into the ruling to see what it means.
Introducing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)
Back in 1984, the government passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which was meant to stop hackers from breaking into systems and taking unlawful information. Many have called the law overly broad, as it bans anyone from "[exceeding] authorized access, and thereby obtain… information from any protected computer." Basically, it is illegal for hackers to use malware to access your accounts as a way to steal your credit card information.
This law was recently at the center of a case where David Nosal left his employer, and then convinced a former co-worker to share his or her password that allowed him to access leads from the private database. The court determined that he had unauthorized access to the account and was trying to obtain information from a protected computer or database. While this case might seem cut and dry, it highlights how dangerous a vague law can be because this set the precedent for labeling password sharing as illegal under the CFAA. This is where Netflix comes in.
How Password Sharing Became a Felony
Tim Wu at the New Yorker explains that judges in the past few years have expanded CFAA beyond hackers trying to break into computers and now claim "exceeding authorized access" can apply to anyone breaking a website's terms of service. In Nosal's case, he had access to the database as long as he was employed. Those were the terms of employment — and by extension, the terms of the database — that he agreed to when he was hired.
This "terms of service" way of looking at the law means that websites like Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify can hold their customers liable for accessing unauthorized information whenever they violate their terms of service. In the case of Netflix, this includes password sharing.
The short answer is yes, it is technically a felony to share your Netflix password.
Why Netflix Customers Have Nothing to Worry About
Image via Flickr by dailyinvention
Despite all of the uproar, Netflix was never actually mentioned during the case. A few judges casually mentioned password sharing as a bigger picture issue, but none of them were talking about criminalizing a practice that millions of Americans share. Contrary to all the headlines, the Nosal case had nothing to do with Netflix.
Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Netflix would sue its millions of users and take them to court over a few shared passwords. The company would have to individually audit their customers' behavior and serve papers to all of them. Even if Netflix wanted to go after its entire customer base, it's much more likely to make an example of a few small players like the record industry did with illegal downloading.
Netflix Has Other Privacy Options
Many websites have ways to prevent password sharing, and Netflix could easily implement them if it wanted to. Some websites and software tools automatically log customers out of any device they're using if they log in to another one. For example, if you log in at home and then log in at work, your home computer will log itself out. Not only is this a way to prevent password sharing and multiple people using one account, but it also offers the added security of knowing multiple people can't get in.
However, Netflix doesn't necessarily want only one customer using its service at a time. In 2013, it launched customer profiles specifically so multiple people could use the service in one account. Mom could catch up on HGTV shows in the living room while Dad watched an action movie and their daughter sang along to Dora the Explorer. All three could stream at the same time without mixing up their recommendations. This way their 5-year-old doesn't accidentally watch raunchier scenes from "Orange is the New Black."
While it may technically be illegal to send your Netflix password out to a group of friends, you don't have to worry about facing legal action anytime soon. The law is too broad and the practice is too common for anyone to go to court over it.