Beware When You Share That HBO or Netflix Password

Okay, I’ll admit it—I have, in the past, before July 1 of this year, occasionally shared my HBO Go password with friends and family. I know, I know—it’s poor hygiene and potentially piratical but...come on, I felt it was practically a public service.

What else is a slogger to do when faced with the sad, benighted visages of those who have yet to see a single episode of Game of Thrones? Let me reiterate: Not a single one. No John Snow. No dragons. No naked mud-splattered Cersei. Nothing for these folks but a giant, gaping hole in their pop culture knowledge and a sad inability to comprehend a large portion of seasonal internet memes.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that password-sharing is actually now technically a federal crime in the US, as of a ruling by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in early July. Sharing online passwords is now prosecutable under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

But the funny thing is that the likes of HBO and Netflix really don’t mind the consensual passing around of the ol’ digits. In fact, they see it as the equivalent of offering a free trial—get people hooked, and they’ll want an account of their very own.

Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings clarified this at CES in January. “We love people sharing Netflix whether they’re two people on a couch or 10 people on a couch,” he said. “That’s a positive thing, not a negative thing.” He added, “As kids move on in their life, they like to have control of their life, and as they have an income, we see them separately subscribe. It really hasn’t been a problem.”

HBO takes a similar line. CEO Richard Pleper in the past has noted that, “To us, it’s a terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers, and to us, it is actually not material at all to business growth…it’s not a fundamental problem, and the externality of it is that it presents the brand to more and more people, and gives them an opportunity hopefully to become addicted to it. What we’re in the business of doing is building addicts, of building video addicts. The way we do that is by exposing our product, our brand, our shows, to more and more people.”

Piracy watchdogs see little difference between swapping Netflix deets and other forms of subscription-sharing however. Consider the case of card sharing, also known as control word sharing, which is a method of sharing access to a subscription television network. This is achieved by electronically sharing a part of the legitimate conditional access smart card's output data, enabling all recipients to gain simultaneous access to scrambled DVB streams, held on the encrypted television network. The pirates can thus sell subscriptions to out-of-market feeds to consumers or bar-owners (it’s especially useful for sports).

But is this a “little ones grow into big ones” issue, where password-sharing can be seen as the gateway drug to full-blown content-stealing? The court says sure, even though card-sharing is a hardware-based hijacking of content, and we’re talking about traditional pay-TV rather than a 10-buck streaming subscription, and someone is profiting off of this rather than just being nice and letting their cousin binge-watch GoT while she’s home sick recovering from knee surgery. Just saying.

Stephen Reinhardt, the dissenting judge in the case, noted that the decision “threatens to criminalize all sorts of innocuous conduct engaged in daily by ordinary citizens.”

Well, be that as it may, password-sharing is now criminalized, so Aunt Barb will have to pay up to watch Stranger Things on Netflix from now on. The court ruled that password-sharing make one a threat to intellectual property, a veritable White Walker coming for Big Media profits—regardless of whether the behavior will ever be prosecuted in normal circumstances. Comment below with thoughts. I’ll be here catching up on Veep—a single individual using a single set of credentials. Which seems kind of lonely.

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