Washington Post: How Washington’s last remaining video rental store changed the course of privacy law
The Washington Post takes a look at Potomac Video as the store closes after 33 years in business. Potomac Video was at the center for the Robert Bork privacy controversy, and the Post reports on how the store affected privacy law:
But even as the local retail chain lets loose its dying moan, Potomac Video can still claim credit for changing the face of consumer privacy thanks to its role in the creation of the Video Privacy Protection Act, or VPPA.
It all started with a Supreme Court nomination and one reporter who wanted to know what a nominee had been watching.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert Bork, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to the Supreme Court. Bork was a pretty controversial fellow — he had ties to the Watergate scandal and faced an aggressive wave of criticism from Democrats in the Senate.
But it was Bork’s position on privacy that caused Michael Dolan, who was then a writer with the Washington City Paper, to start looking into his video rental records. You see, Bork was a strict constitutionalist and generally did not believe that individuals were guaranteed privacy protections beyond those specifically outlined in legislation.
So one day, Dolan walked into Potomac Video and asked the manager on duty whether he could have a peek at Bork’s rental history — something that no specific legislation at the time barred. He walked out with a photocopy revealing the 146 tapes the judge had checked out in the past two years.
Other than the sheer number of tapes, Dolan didn’t uncover anything too shocking. (Bork appears to have had a special taste for Hitchcock and costume dramas.) But Dolan’s acidic prose and the fact that he was able to get the records at all became a huge story, prompting Congress to pass the VPPA in 1988 — after Bork’s nomination had been voted down 58 to 42. […]
But even with the changes, the VPPA continues to provide consumers some leeway to keep their video-viewing habits private.