Who Does Netflix Think They Are, Anyway?
Understandable efforts to protect their market share are alienating customers who think they're doing nothing wrong.
The Atlantic has an interesting piece by Cory Doctorow with the bold headline “Big Tech Wants to Tell You Who Counts as Your Family.” Despite being a subscriber, I came to it via a referral link and didn’t realize who the author was until later.
Netflix just unveiled (and then partially withdrew) details of a new password-sharing policy, which allows members of the same “household” to share an account. Besides being, in reality, more an anti-password-sharing policy, this revised version comes with two very large assumptions: that there is a commonly understood, universal meaning of household, and that software can determine who is and is not a member of your household.
Annoyed by the headline and, again, unaware of who the author was, I was not in the least bit impressed with this argument.
Indeed, we had this conversation at the dinner table last night. My wife is annoyed that the new policy makes it harder for us to share our Netflix account with her daughter, a 23-year-old college graduate with a good job and a nice apartment of her own. I pointed out that, as a 26-year-old graduate student with a comparatively meager income, it never occurred to me that I should somehow get to use my parent’s cable television. That technology has made it physically possible to do so, of course, makes it a more interesting argument. But there’s no moral rationale for why one is different than the other.
Beyond that, “household” seems like an easy enough concept. It’s a group of people who predominantly live in the same, well, household, be it a single-family home, apartment, or whathaveyou. Our grown, no-longer-living-with-us daughter remains a member of the family; she is not a member of the household. (I can argue either way on the 19-year-old who goes to university 15 minutes away, lives in the dorms, but comes home regularly and lives here during school breaks.)
But Doctorow’s argument is more interesting than one about who gets to share a Netflix account.
This is a recurring form of techno-hubris: the idea that baseline concepts such as “family” have crisp definitions, and that any exceptions are outliers that would never swallow the rule. Such corporate delusion in the world of technology is so long established and common that there’s a whole genre devoted to cataloging the phenomenon: “Falsehoods Programmers Believe About X.”
In the early 2000s, I spent several years trying to bring some balance to just such an effort to define family. I was the representative for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit established to defend civil liberties online, in a forum created by the industry consortium Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB). This business association, which sets digital-TV standards used in most of the world (though not in the U.S.), was then rolling out a system designed to limit video sharing to a single household. Its term of art for this software-defined family unit was “authorized domain.”
The borders of this domain were privately negotiated by corporate executives from media companies, broadcasters, and tech and consumer-electronics companies, in closed-door sessions all around the world with no public minutes or proceedings. These guys (they were nearly all guys) were proud of how much “flexibility” they’d built into their definition of household. For example, if you owned a houseboat and take your laptop, or had a luxury car with seatback displays, or kept a summer villa with lots of TVs in another country, the authorized domain would be able to figure out how to get your videos onto all of those screens.
But what about other kinds of families, I asked—the kinds without boats or villas?
I suggested that one test case should be a family based in Manila, whose dad travels to remote provinces to do agricultural labor, whose daughter works as a nanny in California, and whose son does construction work in the United Arab Emirates. The guys roundly rejected this suggestion as an “edge case.”
Of course, this isn’t an edge case. There are orders of magnitude more people whose family looks like this than there are people who own a vacation home in another country. Owning a villa makes you an outlier; having an itinerant agricultural worker as your family’s breadwinner does not.
While a really good illustration of structural and cultural blindness, I’d really need to know more about the case, edge or otherwise, to have a strong opinion. Presuming the itinerant worker actually makes enough money to afford the services and devices necessary for this even to be an issue, it’s not unreasonable that he and his wife should be able to share in the use, just as they would if they were cohabitating 365 days a year. It’s less obvious in the case of the, presumably grown, children.
This is the better example:
Unfortunately, everyone in the room who draws up the standard definition of what constitutes a household is more likely to have a villa than to depend on remittances from family members working abroad. So if your family looks like their edge case, that’s tough: “Computer says no.”
One day, we got to talking about the problem of “content laundering,” another form of sharing that the forum considered illicit. The way to prevent it, the executives argued, would be to put limits on how often someone could leave one household and join another: No one could have a legitimate reason to change households every week.
“What about a child whose divorced parents share custody of her?” I said. “She’s absolutely going to change households every week.” They thought about it for a moment, then the representative of a giant IT company (which, it so happened, had recently been convicted of criminal antitrust violations) said, “Oh, we can solve that. We’ll give her a toll-free number to call when she gets locked out of her account.”
That was the solution they went with: If you were a child coping with the dissolution of your parents’ marriage, you would have to keep calling up a media company to get your TV access unblocked. I never forgot that day. I even wrote a science-fiction story about it, “Authorised Domain,” which took the form of a court-ordered letter written by a girl who’d been automatically caught for and then charged with “piracy” as she attempted to keep up with her favorite TV shows following her parents’ divorce.
Now, presumably, this is two “households,” of which the child is a member of both. The divorced parents should reasonably be expected to get their own damn accounts. But it’s unreasonable to expect the child to flip back and forth between them.
Indeed, going back to the kid-in-college question, when the now-23-year-old was still in college, at Temple University in Philadelphia, we frequently had to phone Hulu’s customer service because they were constantly shutting off either her access or our access to the service because we were streaming from very different locales. Their policy recognized her as a legitimate member of the household plan but their technology was not up to the challenge.
From here, Doctorow gets into an interesting, if seemingly wildly tangential, discourse into people with multiple names that had the benefit of making me react, “Wait a minute! Is this Cory Doctorow?” (He eventually ties it back into the tech issue, noting that companies don’t deal well with such ambiguities even they’re wildly common in real life. We discussed a variation of that theme well over a decade ago.)
Why is Netflix putting the screws to its customers? It’s part of the “enshittification” cycle (another coinage of mine), in which the platform company first allocates surpluses to its users, luring them in and using them as bait for business customers. Then, once the consumers turn up, the company reallocates surpluses to businesses, lavishing them with low commissions and lots of revenue opportunities. And after they’re locked in, the company starts to claw back the surpluses for itself.
Remember when Netflix was in the business of mailing red envelopes full of DVDs around the country? That was allocating surpluses to users. The movie companies hated this, and considered it theft—a proposition that was at least as valid as Netflix’s complaints about password sharing. But every pirate wants to be an admiral. When Netflix did it to the studios, it was progress—when you do it to Netflix, however, it’s theft. So if you define family in ways that make Netflix less money, that’s felony contempt of its business model.
Netflix isn’t the only company that has tried to embed a definition of family in service offerings—Apple and Google have also made their own ham-fisted attempts. But just because a business’s shareholders would prefer to assign sharp-edged borders to notions such as family, households, names, and addresses doesn’t mean that we can—or should.
In the olden days of cable television, it was not uncommon for people to “share” the service with a neighbor, whether intentionally or otherwise. But we all understood that to be theft.
Digital changed all of that. Napster and various other “file sharing” technologies allowed people to do something that was always understood to be legal—making a copy of a friend’s album for your own use—at a scale that radically transformed the nature of the activity. While I partook of the activity, justifying it on the basis that I was never going to buy the songs I was downloading so there was no harm to the record label or the artists, I fully understood why the record labels and artists wanted to stop it. Ultimately, in that case, paid streaming services came along and most of us happily pay a reasonable monthly fee to subscribe to one.
In the case of Netflix’s original business model, I honestly don’t know what the fuss was. In the United States, at least, we have decades of laws on the books that differentiate rental rights from personal use rights. Not being in the rental business, I’m only vaguely familiar with them but libraries can’t simply buy a book on Amazon and then loan it out for free to all comers, even though normal citizens are free to loan their books to their heart’s content. Netflix’s mailing out DVDs wasn’t fundamentally different from Blockbuster renting them at a local brick-and-mortar.
But, yes, streaming changes the nature of it. Netflix couldn’t very well make a living with one customer with an all-you-can-watch account who then “shared” his login Information with the world. Either Doctorow (especially) or I could pretty easily do that.
Of course, the easy limiter on that is for Netflix to throttle the number of simultaneous streams on a given account rather than trying to artificially define a “household.” If I’m paying for their Premium plan, it really shouldn’t make any difference if the fourth streamer is my grown stepdaughter, my out-of-state in-laws, or an OTB commenter.
Indeed, as I’ve noted in other contexts, a weird side effect of having had, until the aforementioned eldest moved out, a whopping seven of us under the same roof was that limitations based on “household” decidedly did not work for us. The otherwise generous COVID “household” restrictions were positively paltry with four adults, two teenagers, and a tween in the home. And we actually had two Netflix accounts because the most robust subscription available allowed only four simultaneous streams and we butted up against it often enough that it just wasn’t worth it.