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Europe Data Protection Digest | Notes from the IAPP Europe Managing Director, 15 December 2017 Related reading: Takeaways from record COPPA settlement

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Greeting from Brussels!

The year is winding down fast, and I keep asking myself, "Where did 2017 go?" It has been a busy year for the IAPP; and I personally have spent a good deal of time on the road, and in planes and trains, which I suppose gives a distorted sense that the weeks are flying by faster than reality. It also means I've developed some habits many of you other business travelers will recognize: I never travel without a good book, and I rely heavily on my Netflix subscription so I don't have to submit myself to the bland viewing of hotel TV channels wherever I find myself.

As a result, I was mildly curious to read the polarized reaction this week surrounding a Netflix Twitter post that seemingly mocked a few dozen anonymous customers for repeatedly watching the same film over a period of weeks. Misplaced banter you might think, and yes, overall, I’d probably agree with you: Not the most obvious way to endear yourself to your customer base. Most likely the tweet in question was not meant to be mean spirited. However, it has been described by some users as simply "creepy," kicking off an online debate around how closely the company is watching and monitoring its customers. With more than 100,000 retweets, the attempt at humor proved a hit with some; however, some users were unnerved at the apparent detail of the data Netflix holds on its users.

Perhaps more poignant is that, from a global customer base of 110 million customers, the firm narrowed its data analytics to a handful of customers with accuracy, further suggesting that employees — or at the very least, their social media staff — have liberal access to customer viewing data. This has invariably lead some to question what you can, or cannot do, with customer data. It has also raised security concerns, surrounding how many Netflix employees have access to this data, and whether it can be used to identify individual customers.

In fairness, Netflix isn't the first company to use its vast wealth of data for marketing or advertising. So, what was the ultimate aim of the tweet? Augmented marketing in the run up to the festive season? Most of us know we will all be sat around a viewing screen at some point in the coming weeks watching some show or other. It’s a popular Christmas family tradition. Interestingly, it has been reported that the streaming service took its inspiration from a well-known Spotify advertising campaign last year, based around "funny factoids" about its individual users unusual listening habits. That particular campaign was deemed a success. And we should bear in mind that Netflix has 4.2 million followers on Twitter, not negligible number and a prime channel for some playful, cavalier, or outright provocative marketing.

As a response to the hue and cry, a spokesperson for Netflix said, “The privacy of our members' viewing is important to us. This information represents overall viewing trends, not the personal viewing information of specific, identified individuals.” The statement also confirmed that the stats quoted in the tweet are real.

TechCrunch, the online media outlet made an interesting observation: "In this age of online user profiling and ad-targeted omnipresent surveillance capitalism, ... you definitely don’t talk about surveillance capitalism if you’re actually taking cold hard cash from users of your product." Their view is that exposing paying customer likes and dislikes to fuel ad-targeting engines is simply not a cool thing to do. Digital data continues to be shown time and again to represent a temptation and a risk for companies. Some opinion would suggest robust systems for encrypting, storing and provisioning access to user information to minimize risk are — arguably — a minimum paying customers should be able to expect.

I am reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote: “Somehow or other I'll be famous, and if not famous, I'll be notorious.” In an ever-competitive digital environment it seems that online companies, at times, strive to be both equally famous and notorious to stay on our attention radars. Netflix certainly achieved semi-notorious status this week; everyone is talking about them.

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