Monday, 21 December 2009

Ain't nothin' goin' on but the rental

Next time you're in Blockbuster, or you're choosing something on Sky Box Office, keep in mind what your film selection says about you. If you're watching Brokeback Mountain it could mean you're gay, if you go for Love, Actually it might indicate that you're a woman, and if you prefer Big Momma's House it might mean you require an in-home carer and plastic cutlery.

Actually, that's not true at all. Despite studios' squeamishness over releasing gay-themed titles to a mainstream (i.e. mostly straight) audience, most people are happy enough watching whatever they like, without any fear that their selections might disclose a little too much personal information.

Actually, that's not true at all either. It turns out that an "in-the-closet lesbian mother" is suing online movie rental service Netflix, for publishing personal data concerning her film preferences that might indicate her fondness for flannel.

To cut a long (and astonishingly complicated) story short, this controversy all came about when Netflix attempted to find a way to improve its recommendation system. It works a little like the one on Amazon. You know the type - customers who bought 'Lark Rise to Candleford' also bought 'The House of Eliott' DVD boxset, the 'Alan Titchmarsh Potting Shed Calendar' and a ten-pack of Tena Plus Odour Control Incontinence Pants.

But in order to make the system more effective, they made available the viewing data of 480,000 Netflix customers as part of a competition to find someone who could design a better recommendation algorithm (told you it was complicated). The problem is, this same information was the sort of stuff that Netflix had promised to keep private.

Apparently, this precious data included such incendiary information as rental titles, genres, dates and viewer ratings. And the 'closeted' plaintiff is concerned that these hugely telling details could lead to her being publicly outed. As the lawsuit puts it: “were her sexual orientation public knowledge, it would negatively affect her ability to pursue her livelihood and support her family and would hinder her and her children’s ability to live peaceful lives.” These would be the same children who've already been subjected to repeat viewings of 'Personal Best', 'The Hunger' and 'Showgirls'. Haven't they suffered enough?

According to the lawsuit, it's a classic case of guilt by association - "The member’s movie data exposes a Netflix member’s personal interest and/or struggles with various highly personal issues, including sexuality, mental illness, recovery from alcoholism, and victimization from incest, physical abuse, domestic violence, adultery, and rape."

This utterly illogical conclusion suggests that, based on this year's big box office winners, we've all found ourselves stuck in a love triangle between a moody vampire and a buff werewolf, attacked by skyscraper-sized robots, and forced to live out the rest of our days in the body of a nine-foot tall blue cat. Hooray for Hollywood eh?

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