As millions of internet users watch videos online for news and entertainment, it is essential to uphold a federal privacy law that protects against the disclosure of everyone’s viewing history, EFF argued in court last month.

For decades, the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA) has safeguarded people’s viewing habits by generally requiring services that offer videos to the public to get their customers’ written consent before disclosing that information to the government or a private party. Although Congress enacted the law in an era of physical media, the VPPA applies to internet users’ viewing habits, too.

The VPPA, however, is under attack by Patreon. That service for content creators and viewers is facing a lawsuit in a federal court in Northern California, brought by users who allege that the company improperly shared information about the videos they watched on Patreon with Facebook.

Patreon argues that even if it did violate the VPPA, federal courts cannot enforce it because the privacy law violates the First Amendment on its face under a legal doctrine known as overbreadth. This doctrine asks whether a substantial number of the challenged law’s applications violate the First Amendment, judged in relation to the law’s plainly legitimate sweep.  Courts have rightly struck down overbroad laws because they prohibit vast amounts of lawful speech. For example, the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU invalidated much of the Communications Decency Act’s (CDA) online speech restrictions because it placed an “unacceptably heavy burden on protected speech.”

EFF is second to none in fighting for everyone’s First Amendment rights in court, including internet users (in Reno mentioned above) and the companies that host our speech online. But Patreon’s First Amendment argument is wrong and misguided. The company seeks to elevate its speech interests over those of internet users who benefit from the VPPA’s protections.

As EFF, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Northern California argued in their friend-of-the-court brief, Patreon’s argument is wrong because the VPPA directly advances the First Amendment and privacy interests of internet users by ensuring they can watch videos without being chilled by government or private surveillance.

“The VPPA provides Americans with critical, private space to view expressive material, develop their own views, and to do so free from unwarranted corporate and government intrusion,” we wrote. “That breathing room is often a catalyst for people’s free expression.”

As the brief recounts, courts have protected against government efforts to learn people’s book buying and library history, and to punish people for viewing controversial material within the privacy of their home. These cases recognize that protecting people’s ability to privately consume media advances the First Amendment’s purpose by ensuring exposure to a variety of ideas, a prerequisite for robust debate. Moreover, people’s video viewing habits are intensely private, because the data can reveal intimate details about our personalities, politics, religious beliefs, and values.

Patreon’s First Amendment challenge is also wrong because the VPPA is not an overbroad law. As our brief explains, “[t]he VPPA’s purpose, application, and enforcement is overwhelmingly focused on regulating the disclosure of a person’s video viewing history in the course of a commercial transaction between the provider and user.” In other words, the legitimate sweep of the VPPA does not violate the First Amendment because generally there is no public interest in disclosing any one person’s video viewing habits that a company learns purely because it is in the business of selling video access to the public.

There is a better path to addressing any potential unconstitutional applications of the video privacy law short of invalidating the statute in its entirety. As EFF’s brief explains, should a video provider face liability under the VPPA for disclosing a customer’s video viewing history, they can always mount a First Amendment defense based on a claim that the disclosure was on a matter of public concern.

Indeed, courts have recognized that certain applications of privacy laws, such as the Wiretap Act and civil claims prohibiting the disclosure of private facts, can violate the First Amendment. But generally courts address the First Amendment by invalidating the case-specific application of those laws, rather than invalidating them entirely.

“In those cases, courts seek to protect the First Amendment interests at stake while continuing to allow application of those privacy laws in the ordinary course,” EFF wrote. “This approach accommodates the broad and legitimate sweep of those privacy protections while vindicating speakers’ First Amendment rights.”

Patreon's argument would see the VPPA gutted—an enormous loss for privacy and free expression for the public. The court should protect against the disclosure of everyone’s viewing history and protect the VPPA.

You can read our brief here.

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