Ad Ops Decoder: What Is VPPA?

Publishers that deal with a lot of video content will likely be able to tell you a little about the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). Particularly, they’ll be able to tell you about the numerous hoops it causes video-heavy ops teams to jump through. VPPA holds that a user’s viewing history is private, and that video providers are not to disclose it without the user’s consent. As such, digital video providers must take caution to separate a user’s viewing history from anything that can be traced back to an individual, identifiable person.

And what do you know? Those legal requirements exist now because someone wanted to know what a Supreme Court nominee rented from Blockbuster in 1987.

During the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, a journalist wanted to see if Bork had rented any questionable titles from his local video store and asked Blockbuster for Bork’s rental history. Nothing weird showed up in the list, but when politicians in D.C. realized how easy it was to walk into a video store and get the same information about anyone, they passed the VPPA to make sure that information remained protected.   

That all made sense, and it was straightforward enough in the days when most people had to physically go to a store to rent a movie. But in the era of digital video streaming, the law complicates operations for a variety of companies—and can have unexpected or downright strange implications. In the language of VPPA, a digital video provider would be considered a video rental or video sales company. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of people in digital video who feel that language doesn’t really fit with what they’re doing these days.

VPPA has been at the center of a few high-profile lawsuits in recent years. Netflix had to pay $9 million, most of it to consumer advocacy groups, for continuing to link customers with their video rental histories more than a year after they’d cancelled service. In a class action suit against Hulu in 2015, the streaming service was held liable for the unauthorized combination of a) Facebook IDs for users who had clicked a “Like” button on Hulu.com, and b) data from users’ “watch pages.” That case was ruled in Hulu’s favor, but plaintiffs are appealing.

Companies have lobbied to amend VPPA, to some effect. As of 2013, video providers may share information about a user’s viewing history on social media, if the user has consented. But the law still has a lot of complex implications about how digital providers can retain and share user data about viewing histories.

In the 21st century, it might sound innocuous, or at least routine, that a publisher would want to draw some kind of cross-platform connection between the user and the content they consume. That’s kind of how digital advertising works. But with video, publishers have to be very cautious about how they use data to make those connections. Are you targeting audiences or individual users? Is there a chance someone will be able to figure out how to link that user to their viewing history? If so, you might want to talk to your legal/privacy team, because there could be a VPPA violation.

There are plenty of laws and regulations aside from VPPA that can cause roadblocks for digital publishers. Generally, ops people need to have a good sense of when to flag and escalate potential issues for legal to look at more closely and provide guidance.  

AdMonsters Resources

The Legal Connection: How Ops Avoids Regulatory Pitfalls (2017)

Who's Watching Whom? Ad Tracking, Surveillance and Ethics in the Exchanges (2017)

A Native Ad by Any Other Name Is... Confusing (2016)

ISP Data Use Is More Worrisome Than Pokemon Tracking (2016)

AdMonsters Playbook: User Experience (2016)



Brian LaRue has been AdMonsters' Staff Writer since the summer of 2015. He arrived at AdMonsters with several years' worth of knowledge of media and advertising tech, having written and edited on behalf of publications and tech vendors alike. Brian has been publishing steadily since high school and cut his teeth professionally at regional alt-weeklies in New England. Being involved in print in the 21st century certainly helped inspire his vocal advocacy of digital media. These days, he lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he pursues several threads of an art-damaged semi-secret life.

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