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

Grandma is watching what?!

Updated A new Plex "feature" has infuriated some users after sharing with others what they are watching on the streaming service. This functionality is on by default.

At the start of this month Plex rolled out something called Discover Together, which we're told shows folks "what you and your friends are watching, rating, and saving to your watchlists."

Crucially, this feature, which is enabled until you actively 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 as folks had a chance to switch it off. In fact, two settings need to remain enabled for the summary emails to go out:

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 displays this functionality as on by default with the option to switch it off, it is opt out rather than opt in. If you have to interact with the UI to disable something that defaults to enabled, it's opt out.

Someone going by the handle fog673 even helpfully documented here the controversial workflow here in which people are enrolled into the email feature: after opening Plex, the software pops up a series of screens about discovering 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 as another Plex customer put it: "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's more opt-out than opt-in, which is not a best practice when it comes to privacy or keeping customers happy. 

A Plex employee, replying in a support forum thread, directed those upset to "tweak your email preferences (including the weekly review)" by visiting this link. ®

Updated to add on November 29

Plex has attempted to explain its sharing system in more detail here.

It admitted: "Last week we started a new weekly email series intended to highlight your friends’ activity on Plex. The information contained in these emails is accessible from within Plex’s Discover source in the Activity Feed based on your friends’ Privacy Settings.

"This email was enabled by default and caught some of our users by surprise."

Acknowledging the uproar over this, the biz added:

Based on this feedback we will add the email setting to the Privacy Settings page to allow our users to decide if they want to keep the weekly email or disable it when they’re making their privacy selections.

Basically, go through your Plex settings and make sure they are now in order, or you may find you've been opted into an undesirable feature.

The biz also said your X-rated flicks won't show up in the weekly emails: "Plex does not create Discover Together activities (or watch history entries) for any titles flagged as adult in our system. We also do not create activities or watch history entries for any personal media libraries using metadata agents other than the default Plex ones."

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