A federal appeals court ruling has the legislative community in a stir over the legal implications of sharing Netflix and HBO Go passwords. According to the details of a court case called United States v. Nosal, David Nosal gained access to executive recruiting firm Korn Ferry’s database and acquired loads of confidential info that he used to start a competing company; he did so by “borrowing” a current employee’s password with her permission after his own credentials had been revoked. Nosal was found guilty.
Lots of inaccurate reporting misrepresents this majority ruling as a federal law banning the sharing of one’s Netflix password, but this is hardly the situation. Because United States v. Nosal dealt so closely and specifically with a shared password, people started drawing lines from it to their own experiences with a shared password. Such experiences are bound to feature names like Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and Netflix.
Though it depends on how the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is interpreted in the future, it seems highly unlikely that sharing your Netflix password will formally be a federal crime. In a dissenting opinion that recognizes that password sharing is a behavior that takes place across multiple spheres, not just corporate espionage, Judge Stephen Reinhardt professes password sharing ought to be no big deal, lest the court turn a bunch of people into criminals overnight:
“People frequently share their passwords, notwithstanding the fact that websites and employers have policies prohibiting it. In my view, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act does not make the millions of people who engage in this ubiquitous, useful, and generally harmless conduct into unwitting federal criminals,” writes Reinhardt.
Furthermore, we only have evidence to the affirmative that Netflix is cool with its legitimate, paying users sharing their passwords with others. Not only did a company spokesperson say it would be difficult to track the number of people sharing their passwords, they said Netflix simply doesn’t do it.
Beyond Netflix, in 2014, HBO CEO Richard Plepler told BuzzFeed he doesn’t care if people are sharing their HBO Go passwords because “it just has no impact on the business.” He even suggested that password-sharing is like a “terrific marketing vehicle” that brings up “the next generation of viewers.”
Whether you subscribe or just skate by on your favorite streaming service, it seems you’re cool with the top brass. So the courts better just remember that.