The backlash to Netflix’s password-sharing crackdown.

   2023-02-18 14:02

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I started living in the future in 2011, back when I didn’t even have a smartphone.

That’s the year I became the editor of Future Tense. I thought I’d be here for a year or two before moving on. Instead, I stayed for more than a decade. Friday was my last day.

Since 2011, the land of the future has experienced a great deal of upheaval. I’ve helped chronicle the rise of CRISPR and ChatGPT, the death of net neutrality, the countless peaks and valleys of crypto. (Blockchain is still going to change everything, right?) A surprising amount has also stayed the same: While self-driving car technology has improved a lot, it still isn’t exactly the predominant mode of transportation, as some optimists permitted. The biggest tech revolutions are always five to 10 years away.

But when contemplating how tech has changed since 2011—or, perhaps more accurately, how the public’s relationship with tech has changed—the best and most timely example may be Netflix. Now, the company is weathering a backlash that is indicative of some much larger shifts.

When I first began working with Future Tense, Silicon Valley was golden. Tech seemed an unstoppable force for good, bringing democracy and information and efficiency to anyone who could afford an entry-level device. Politicians and techies alike conjured up ways to bring Silicon Valley innovation and efficiency to Washington. Sure, there were some critics—many of whom I published!—but others often viewed them as cranky sticks in the mud. (Sticks in the mud, it must be said, often have a point.)

In 2012, in a sign of what Silicon Valley promised us, Netflix premiered Lilyhammer, its first exclusive show (at least outside of Norway). All eight episodes were available at once. (I liked the first season, but then it got a little too violent for me.) The following year came House of Cards. The shows dragged Hollywood into a new era, one in which customers could get prestige content for low prices, with all the episodes just waiting for you to binge them. It was better than cable in a couple of key ways: If you wanted the great shows, you didn’t have to sign up for premium channels via your cable provider. (I once fell for a great cable promotion, only to be stuck with the expensive channels after the deal expired.) And it was mobile: Instead of being tethered to one, maybe two TVs in your home, you could watch Netflix wherever you wanted—and you could even share it.

In 2015, when Netflix raised prices for the two-stream plan by $1 a month, a Goldman Sachs analyst suggested it was because of password sharing. But Netflix also knew that a hard-core crackdown would alienate customers—hence the @Netflix 2017 tweet, widely shared in recent weeks, that proclaimed, “Love is sharing a password.”

Now, of course, the pendulum has swung. Netflix has officially instituted a password-sharing crackdown in Canada, Spain, Portugal, and New Zealand, following rollouts in some Latin American countries. It’s supposed to hit subscribers in the U.K. next. The privilege of being a U.S.-based tech consumer is immense: Once the company has figured out what customers will put up with, the U.S. join that group.

The new Netflix drill requires devices to log into your home internet network once every 30 days. That seems reasonable enough. But skim the Netflix subreddit, and you’ll find stories of people who are navigating challenging streaming situations. According to Netflix, “A Netflix account is meant to be shared in one household (people who live in the same location with the account owner). People who are not in your household will need to sign up for their own account to watch Netflix.” But what if your household involves a college student living in another country? An adult who works on the road and only makes it home every three months? A family member in a long-term hospital stay?

For many of us, our household is not the people who literally sleep in the home every night of the week. It’s the people who we want to be with every night of the week, would circumstances allow. This feels particularly acute in the aftermath of the pandemic. When so many of us were stuck at home, it didn’t mean the same home. Many people were isolated from loved ones and found new ways to bond over shared streaming content. Yes, Netflix is a business—of course it wants to make as much money as possible while retaining subscribers. But so much of the backlash to the new rules feels like it’s rooted in how streaming together made us feel closer at a time when we were all apart. Sharing a Netflix account became the equivalent of swapping books or DVDs, back when we all still had physical media. It was a way to unite over something.

There was a moment in which it felt like the desires of users and the desires of Big Tech aligned, especially in the pandemic. We viewers wanted more great content, and the streamers wanted to bring it to us. We all wanted to shop at home, and Google wanted to serve us ads to make it easy. We wanted to connect with one another, and TikTok and Instagram and Zoom offered us platforms on which to do that. This dynamic predated the pandemic, though—this idea that if you made users happy, it would bring money and make companies happy. Now, we’re at odds over who is bringing value to whom. From Netflix’s point of view, all of these complaints just sound like entitled whining—why should you be able to share your account with tons of people? And from consumers’ points of view, Netflix just seems greedy.

There’s also a way in which Netflix pulling back on passwords sort of erases a lot of labor we’ve done over the past decade-plus. All that soul-searching on what to do if your ex’s cousin is using your Netflix—gone! We negotiated all of these new norms, only to find that we don’t need the norms anymore at all. (Maybe technology really is cyclical?)

So what comes next? I have no idea. In my new job, I’m going to be dealing with a lot less tech. And I have a confession to make: I’m a little relieved. I’m not a super techy person, hence not even having a smartphone when I started this job. I love thinking about how science and tech change us, change our relationships with one another, create novel questions and problems. But part of me is really glad to now become a consumer of these stories rather than a producer of them. Because Future Tense is going to continue to do this great work, thanks to the many wonderful people behind it at Slate, Arizona State University, and New America. If we have to trust the future to anyone, it’s these folks.


Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Wish We’d Published This

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Lots of people have tried to imagine a 21st century U.S. civil war, but none have succeeded as much as Omar El Akkad with American War. In American War, the U.S. of 2074 outlaws the use of fossil fuels entirely, prompting Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas to secede. It’s a story of climate change, of culture wars turned deadly, of pandemics and poverty. We meet our guide to this future when she is a 6-year-old climate refugee, and we follow her as she becomes an insurgent herself. In American War, fossil fuels are not just energy—they are identity. “So many terrible things made you this way, but I don’t have to live with what made you, I have to live with what you are,” one character says. It’s something I think about whenever I hear about trucks rolling coal on bicyclists and states considering restrictions on electric vehicles.

What Next: TBD

On Friday’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary and the Washington Post’s Shane Harris talk about spy balloons, UFOs, and what’s really going on in the skies. Last week, Lizzie and Louise Matsakis, a reporter for Semafor covering tech and China, looked at whether there’s really a good case for banning TikTok. Lizzie also interviewed Keri Blakinger, criminal justice reporter at the Los Angeles Times, about how all those smartphones are getting into prisons—and why. (Be sure to check out this great piece we published recently with Open Campus on how tech education in prisons is, in many ways, stuck in the ’70s.) On Sunday, Lizzie will examine the hottest tech in parenting: the Snoo.

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