Netflix, of course, received tons of attention and (apparently) a lot of valuable research, with its Netflix prize
competition, that allowed anyone to take a bunch of Netflix data and try to improve on Netflix's ranking algorithm. Of course, whenever you're dealing with "anonymized data" there are questions about whether or not it can really
be anonymous. In nearly every case, someone figures out how to "re-nonymize" at least some of the data. And, of course, that also happened
with the original Netflix Prize data. This was especially troubling for Netflix because of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), 18 USC 2710
, a special law that was passed after Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork ran into some trouble when his movie rental lists were made public, which made it specifically illegal to reveal movie rental data. And thus... a lawsuit was born
, late last year.
Netflix has announced that it has now settled the lawsuit
, but as a part of that settlement it is canceling the plans it had announced for additional Netflix prizes. While the company can still do contests in the future, it will need to make sure that the data cannot be reconnected to an actual person, which may be quite difficult in practice. This does raise some interesting questions for other attempts to crowdsource research. There are certainly benefits to opening up data to a community of smart people -- but companies are going to need to be extra careful in those settings in dealing with privacy issues.