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Plex gives fans a privacy complex after sharing viewing habits with friends by default

A Plex “feature” has infuriated some users after sharing with others what they are watching on the streaming service — and it appears this functionality is on by default.

At the start of this month Plex rolled out something called Discover Together, with an “Activity” feature that shows “what you and your friends are watching, rating, and saving to your Watchlists.” Crucially, this functionality, which is enabled until you switch it off, sends a weekly email to your friends detailing what you have been watching on your server, and vice-versa.

And this, unsurprisingly, sparked outrage on social media and Plex’s own support forum, with many saying that because Plex is self-hosted, they believed it would be more respectful of privacy than other streaming services — like Netflix, for example. 

“This option should be off by default,” one user wrote. “I was not aware this information was being collected, processed, and disseminated. This feels like an extreme breach of trust and privacy.”

Also perhaps unsurprisingly, a discussion about pornography — who is watching it, whether one should be embarrassed about it, and if Plex should disclose this info — ensued. Of course, there are worse things than watching smut online.

“I already know my friends watch way more embarrassing stuff than softcore porn, like Marvel Cinematic Universe shows,” one wag quipped.

Plex did not respond to The Register‘s questions for this story. However, in its support forum and on Twitter, the software’s developer insisted it wasn’t forcing this functionality on people:

“It is opt-in. To share content viewed on a Plex Media Server, you had to opt in to sync your watch history data and then also opt in to make your watch history visible to friends. Both of those were prompted in the Plex app after screens explaining the features.”

That didn’t fly with folks. As some have argued, if the user interface makes this functionality on by default with the option to switch it off, it is still opt out rather than opt in.

Someone going by the handle fog673 even helpfully documented the new workflow here: after opening Plex, the software pops up a series of screens about this feature allowing you to discover what your friends are watching, and then says the user is “in control” while making sharing viewing habits to friends on by default.

If the user clicks through this window to get back to viewing media, they’ll be automatically opted into the feature. If the user pauses to review the settings, they can switch it off right there and then.

It’s enough to bamboozle at least some netizens. In an email to The Register, one reader told us: “I received an email of someone’s viewing habits and they had no idea it was being sent.”

And according to another Plex customer: “When the user doesn’t touch anything, but the OK button, the setting is set to ‘Friends’ unless he ACTIVELY changes that setting.” In other words: it sounds more like an opt-out than an opt-in, which is not a best practice when it comes to privacy or keeping customers happy. 

A Plex employee, replying to a support forum thread, directed those upset by this sharing of viewing habits to “tweak your email preferences (including the weekly review)” by visiting this link. ®