"We have all kinds of privacy laws that don't make any sense," Schwartz says of the situation. "They're based on how the information is being communicated rather than the type of information."
An example of how privacy requirements vary based on the delivery mechanism has to do with video. The confidentiality of records of video rentals from Blockbuster and its competitors is strictly protected by the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 (enacted after a newspaper disclosed the video-rental records of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork). Schwartz says it's likely that law would also apply to DVD rentals from companies such as Netflix. But AT&T's video-on-demand transactions, which the company now classifies as business records, may not be covered by the law.
Privacy laws coming
U.S. Representatives Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) are working on bills to address these contradictions, and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) has called for a privacy bill of rights. Schwartz says the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are examining the issue. But for now, if you prefer to keep your Internet activities and video-viewing habits private, opt for cable.
Yardena Arar is a senior editor for PC World U.S. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.