Why don’t we feel guilty if we share our Netflix password?

Netflix is cracking down on people sharing their passwords and the binge watchers are in turmoil – but why? Shouldn’t we perceive it as morally wrong to share our passwords anyway? We take a deeper look at why we don’t feel guilty:

The two introductory questions are followed by a number of other questions that arise but are far less obvious:

 Are we ethically obligated to keep our password private and not to share it with anybody?

Are we morally obligated to share our password with the needy?

And last but not least: Are we ethically obliged to make companies profitable by complying with their rules, even if these rules are repeatedly adapted to their own advantage?

First of all, Netflix made us believe that they actually condone sharing a password with friends or loved ones: in March 2017, Netflix published a tweet that said “Love is sharing a password”. On Valentine’s Day in 2023, there’s not much love left for anybody sharing a password.

The lection hidden in here is, of course, primarily the following: Chummy social media accounts that seem to be communicating with us at eye level are not making contractually binding statements for billion-dollar corporations, but merely want to keep us happy and achieve high interaction rates. But of course we took the word of Netflix on social media for granted and as an irrevocable promise for eternity.

But love is only free as long as there’s no competition – and with the rise of other streamers the fat years for Netflix became skinnier and skinnier until it became obvious that the shareholders would demand more revenue as the share price crumbled more and more.

With an estimated loss of 9.1 billion dollars in lost revenue across all streaming platforms sharing and selling passwords has become the new face of content piracy. Of course the cracking down on everybody sharing a password won’t  automatically flush 9.1 billion dollars into the accounts of Netflix and co, but this large sum illustrates this seemingly intractable crisis for the entertainment business.

This brings us back to one of the forementioned questions: Do we have a moral duty to make Netflix profitable? Sharing your password obviously cuts into the profits of Netflix and therefore Netflix cant reinvest these potentially lost profits into more content and ideally into more content with a higher quality. This kind of argumentation is a model example of classic economic liberalism: The more profit Netflix will generate the more happy society will be. But this argument completely ignores that there’s only a handful of competitors and there’s not even anything close to a free market. If anything, the streaming landscape resembles an oligopoly with a few market leaders with seemingly infinitely deep pockets.

Stopping password sharing would in all likelihood only be in the interest of the shareholders of Netflix and not society as a whole. Netflix and other streamers tricked us into believing that a subscription service resembles a private good more than a public good: a private good is just for your own use and you can prohibit others from using it. Your toothbrush for example is the definition of a private good (and of course you are still free to share your toothpaste with whoever you want to, but you did get the point though).

On a second look a subscription service is more like a public good. We don’t need Netflix as necessarily as national defense (and I am a thousand percent sure that many would disagree with me here), but national defense is almost impossible to be shared with and enjoyed by others. Which makes it even more likely that we feel ourselves more morally obligated to share our password than to not share it: streaming content ist not a limited resource like a pizza where you would more hungry if you split it with several people. Instead, sharing your password also adds the benefit of giving and you can feel yourself like a Good Samaritan and also have another person to gossip about the next episode of your favorite show. Your enjoyment of Stranger Things and Co. is in no way diminished by any other person using your account.

Sooner or later – and the current developments emphasize clearly on sooner – Netflix will find a way to efficiently to make password sharing such a pain in the ass that you can always vote with your wallet and your feet. That’s an inevitable development as well as the ‘duty’ to share isn’t obligatory, it’s voluntary. And even if we as content creators should ask ourselves more insistent whether it’s morally wrong to share password to access content we could always greenwash it as enabling our friends with less money to more cultural participation. We will soon find out how the majority of subscribers will react to the cracking down on passwords and if they will come to the realization that most of the content is just not worth the subscription cost – and this will be the ultimate loss for Netflix and other streamers, much more hurtful than lamenting over 9.1 billion dollars of lost revenue.