House Updates 'Judge Bork' Video Rental Record Law

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The opportunity to refer relevantly to Debbie Does Dallas occurs with precious rarity during debates on the House floor, but it did today. The conversation was about a pending bill, H.R. 2471, which “would allow video service providers to post people's favorite movies, as long as they get blanket permission from the consumer to do so. The bill would also allow that permission to be granted online,” according to The Hill.

Before the vote that approved the measure 303-116, however, an opponent, Georgia Democrat Rep. Hank Johnson, spoke about privacy concerns he has with the bill.

“I myself don't want folks to know that I have ordered up Debbie Does Dallas,” he argued. “I may not mind if they know that I ordered up J. Edgar, but I don't want them to know that I ordered Good Girls Gone Bad, and I certainly wouldn't want, on behalf of Judge Robert Bork (pictured), I certainly wouldn't want anyone to be able to uncover the fact that he's been ordering up, relentlessly, the film Bad Boys of Summer.”

The Bork reference actually has meaning; H.R. 2471 updates a law that was passed in the aftermath of President Ronald Reagan's failed 1987 attempt to appoint Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. During the confirmation hearings, a reporter for the Washington City Paper was given Judge Bork’s video rental record by a Washington video rental store and wrote about his taste in videos, including specific titles in the article. Presumably meant to embarrass the judge, the act enraged senators and led to the passage of The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988.

The text of the update is meant to “clarify that a video tape service provider may obtain a consumer's informed, written consent on an ongoing basis and that consent may be obtained through the internet.” The specific amendment is, in italics, as follows:  

(2) A video tape service provider may disclose personally identifiable information concerning any consumer—

(B) to any person with the informed, written consent (including through an electronic means using the Internet) of the consumer given at one or both of the following times:

(i) The time the disclosure is sought.

(ii) In advance for a set period of time or until consent is withdrawn by such consumer.

The update presumes to address technological changes that have taken place since the time when VHS reigned supreme, and DVDs, much less the internet, were a thing of the future. The original subsection B also provided a limited written consent exception, specifically, “to any person with the informed, written consent of the consumer given at the time the disclosure is sought.” The current exception expands the length of the consent to the aforementioned “ongoing basis,” and applies it specifically to the internet.

The amendment was supported by Netflix, Google and Facebook. There appears to have been scant organized opposition but for the House members concerned that giving a blanket approval prohibits individuals from being able to decide which titles they want distributed publicly and which they do not.

Thus, the congressman’s Debbie Does Dallas comment. With the new amendment, we may soon find out if he really did rent the movie, not that I really want to know.