Netflix is currently the biggest streaming service around, with over 45 million subscribers here in the U.S., and another 35 million customers around the world. But it doesn't take suspension of disbelief to think that there are probably millions of others also streaming thanks to a kind friend or relative offering up their password. But apparently giving out your Netflix or HBO Go password could be considered a federal crime. Litchfield, here we come.
A ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday determined that sharing passwords counts as a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which you might recall is the "hacking law" used in prosecuting cases involving just about everything net-related but hacking. The ruling is connected to former Korn/Ferry International employee David Nosal, who was convicted for the unauthorized use of another employee's password to access the research firm's databases, and that conviction was upheld by the Ninth Court. And it's the use of "unauthorized" that's got some worried, since Netflix isn't going to send everyone a letter telling them it's perfectly fine to share passwords with reckless abandon.
Judge Margaret McKeown's viewpoint is that the issue is not about password sharing per se, but that it's about the one employee who had no authority from the firm to give her password to any former employees, which plays into the CFAA's language that states it's illegal to access a computer system "without authorization." And according to Motherload, McKeown fully believes that phrasing is concrete and without wiggle room.
On the other side of the issue, Judge Stephen Reinhardt and others with dissenting opinions say that while David Nosal might not have been authorized by Korn/Ferry to access the databases, he was authorized by the employee who gave him the password, so it wasn't altogether "without authorization," and wasn't outright stealing. And while that might sound like grasping at straws to some, the point is that the wording of the CFAA can be interpreted in completely opposing manners, which is not something anyone should want from a U.S. law, particularly when a parent's HBO Go password is the key to keeping many people's Sunday night drama at 100.
Reinhardt also had issues with the court treating this situation as "hacking," when Nosal didn't have to do anything but merely receive a password from another employee. (Anonymous, this wasn't.) It's just another language issue that could use some updating, particularly in a world that relies on the Internet for just about every aspect of life.
Nobody out there should expect the Netflix Police showing up at their door any time soon, especially since each state has its own different and presumably similar set of rules, although you are all free to create sketches of what you think their uniforms would look like. Still, as long as the U.S. court system adheres to an archaic set of guidelines for the digital world, there's nothing really stopping Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon, Spotify or any other subscription-based system from going after both those sharing the passwords and those using them in such a blatantly unauthorized manner. For those who do have legal use of Netflix passwords, use our premiere schedule to see what you can expect from the service for the rest of the year.