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Digital content, especially streaming, is king. Just a decade or so ago, most people got their music from CDs The Evolution of Music Consumption: How We Got Here The Evolution of Music Consumption: How We Got Here The rise of the iPod, the music-playing mobile phone, and a number of streaming media platforms all point toward a single, simple idea: music is important. But how did we get here? Read More , rented DVDs from the store, and bought physical video games. Now, Spotify has replaced iTunes Spotify Your Music Collection: The End Of iTunes Spotify Your Music Collection: The End Of iTunes Spotify is no longer content to just compete with radio, now they're competing with the idea of even owning music. Read More and CDs, Netflix streams tons of original content 13 New Netflix Originals You'll Be Watching in 2016 13 New Netflix Originals You'll Be Watching in 2016 Netflix has released a lot of original content -- including House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Narcos, and Master of None -- but 2016 is slated to be Netflix's most exciting year yet. Read More , and you can buy nearly any video game digitally – even streaming games using PlayStation Now is possible.

With this rise of digital streaming came user accounts and monthly subscriptions to your favorite content. Users sharing their passwords for these services has become a hotly debated issue – is it stealing to let others use your password for Netflix and other services, or is it as harmless as letting a friend borrow a DVD overnight?

Just like the iMessage green bubble controversy Does Apple Use Green Bubbles to Make You Hate Android Users? Does Apple Use Green Bubbles to Make You Hate Android Users? Blue bubbles and green bubbles might seem like a small distinction, but to thousands of Twitter users they aren't. Let's look at this phenomenon. Read More , I set out to answer this question by creating a survey for my friends and fellow college students. The results are quite fascinating, so let’s dig in and see what they had to say on this issue.

The Demographic

Before we start, a quick word on the survey respondents: I shared the survey on my own Facebook/Twitter pages and in a few groups for students at my university (thanks to everyone who participated!).

84 people took the survey, and the vast majority were in the 18-24 age group as shown below. 64 of them (76.2%) indicated they were college students and the other 23.8% weren’t. Finally, the respondents were split 56%/44% male and female, respectively.

01-Survey-Ages

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One final note: I used Netflix in the survey questions as a generic term for brevity, but the survey was asking about any paid streaming services The End of Ownership: Netflix, Spotify, and The Streaming Generation The End of Ownership: Netflix, Spotify, and The Streaming Generation Read More . Without further ado, let’s jump in!

What Services do People Use?

I was curious to know how many digital subscriptions people actually used before I got into the ethical issues, and the results weren’t surprising. Only 11% of respondents didn’t hold a subscription, and over 70% were current Netflix users. Few people used YouTube Red, so perhaps they heeded Justin’s warning about how bad it is for YouTube 4 Reasons YouTube Red Is Bad for the YouTube Community 4 Reasons YouTube Red Is Bad for the YouTube Community Google just announced YouTube Red. YouTube is a different kind of service with a big community. So, is YouTube Red good or bad for the video site in the long term? Read More .

02-Survey-Subscriptions-Used

Half of people reported using these services every day, meaning they’re definitely getting their money’s worth out of them. Those who responded “Hardly Ever” should look into canceling those unused subscriptions How to Find All of Your Unused Subscriptions and Save Money How to Find All of Your Unused Subscriptions and Save Money Nearly every online service requires a subscriptions these days. Save money by automatically finding and cancelling the ones you don't use anymore. Read More to save some money.

03-Survery-Frequency-of-Use

Interestingly, some of the people who reported using these services frequently aren’t paying for their own:

  • I use either Spotify, YouTube, or Apple Music just about every day, but I’m not currently paying for a subscription to any of them.
  • I watch Netflix with my girlfriend on her dad’s account sometimes. Fairly infrequently, I use my dad’s Amazon Prime account. I don’t have any accounts of my own.

Sharing Passwords is Common

Next, it was time to find out how many people have shared passwords in the past. A considerably larger amount of folks have used someone else’s password as compared to giving out their own:

04-Survey-Given-Passwords

05-Survey-Taken-Passwords

This is interesting on its own, but I wanted people to explain their answers. Here’s a sample on why people gave their passwords to someone else:

  • I’ve shared Netflix with family members, but not friends or anyone else. It helps them to save money on things like cable TV Considering Canceling Cable? The True Cost of Cutting the Cord Considering Canceling Cable? The True Cost of Cutting the Cord When you add everything up, do you really save money by cutting the cord? We do the math involved with cancelling cable in favor of Internet services. Read More and such.
  • Because my two sisters and I are splitting the cost of Netflix so we all share the password. Also I gave it to my fiance.
  • I wanted to show someone a test drive of how useful the program is.
  • Gave [Amazon] password for a few days to order a product, then changed shortly after.
  • I don’t want too many people on my profile messing up my settings, etc. Also, my parents pay for the services.
  • I’ve never given my password, but I have logged in on my account on my friends’ computers for them to use temporarily. It’s temporary for Netflix because once so many devices are logged onto the account, it pushes the oldest login off.
  • Our family shares passwords to use streaming services that my parents pay for. Also, I usually only give my roommate my streaming passwords so that we can watch shows together.

Overall, it seems that most people share their password either permanently with family or close friends, or temporarily so someone can demo a service. Respondents also weighed in on why they’ve used someone else’s password:

  • Sometimes necessary for troubleshooting.
  • Nine of us girls live in a house together. We use one Netflix password for the TV that we all share.
  • I don’t know if this is wrong because it was for the family and I am not home anymore.
  • I don’t ask for passwords, and I don’t give mine out.
  • It was my brother’s account and he never used it.
  • Spotify, to access music for an event when the other person could not give their computer.

Is Sharing Wrong?

Now I asked the big question: Is sharing Netflix passwords with others wrong? This was the first time that the answers astounded me, as I expected many more people to say Yes:

06-Survey-is-Sharing-Wrong

There are too many interesting explanations to share, but here are some of the given reasons:

  • I feel it is okay to share with someone trusted who will not abuse it.
  • While sharing with friends or others is stealing, sharing with immediate family members is justifiable.
  • If I’m paying for a subscription that allows me to watch on multiple devices, who says they have to all be mine?
  • Lending to a friend encourages them to buy their own subscription down the road.
  • The subscription is being paid for. Netflix only allows so many devices to be logged in at once, so when you pay them you are paying to have that access.

  • I find it similar to lending a DVD to a friend; they didn’t have to pay for it, but it is still freely available to them.
  • I feel like it is probably illegal to share passwords, especially with multiple people if the main intent is to not have to pay for the services Are You A Media Moocher? 5 Signs You've Too Many Shared Subscriptions Are You A Media Moocher? 5 Signs You've Too Many Shared Subscriptions Take a long hard look at how you watch your shows and listen to your music -- are you paying for any of these services that are paid for and you happen to be borrowing? Read More and/or they are using the services frequently when the account payer is not around.
  • I’m fine with this “sharing” if you’re sitting down and watching the show or movie together as friends or family. However, giving someone your password implies they are using your account without you present for their private recreation, which I’m against.
  • One or two people is fine, more than that is abusing the system.
  • If it’s to test drive, then it supports the company. If it’s for long term, it’s stealing.

The general consensus seems to be that Neflix wouldn’t have a feature for multiple users unless they planned for more than one person to use an account. However, this then raises the question of who should be allowed to make a profile on your account; family in your house, or friends who don’t want to make their own account? It depends on your view.

On one hand, you’re “wasting” some of the potential of the account if you’re only using it on a single device at once, but on the other hand you could consider people outside your family not eligible to use the account.

Personalizing the question a bit, I asked if people would share their password with their best friend.

07-Survey-Share-With-Friend

Some users offered thoughts on this:

  • This seems similar to lending a movie that you own to someone. You let them watch the movie that they wanted to watch even though they do not own it. I would not let my friend use my Netflix consistently unless she chipped in for some of the cost and she could have her own profile on my account.
  • I wouldn’t want them messing up my suggestions.
  • If they didn’t want to help pay for the subscription I wouldn’t want them just mooching off a service I pay for.
  • Sharing something that I paid for is not wrong.

Taking This Offline

To see if this password issue was a case of Internet Relativism Internet Relativism: 3 Things People Do Online That Would Clearly Be Wrong Offline Internet Relativism: 3 Things People Do Online That Would Clearly Be Wrong Offline There are lots of things people do online that wouldn't exactly work in the real world. Let's see how these behaviors would pan out offline. Read More , I wanted to see how users felt about a similar circumstance offline. Costco, if you’re not familiar, is a wholesale store that requires a membership to enter. You’re allowed to bring a guest with you to shop, but giving your card to someone else is against the rules. How analogous is giving your card to sharing your password?

08-Survey-Sharing-Costco-Card

09-Survey-Costco-Netflix-Comparison

Surprisingly, many people thought that lending the card was more unethical than sharing passwords. Among the reasons:

  • The point of Netflix and other subscription services is that you’re paying for all that content Where Can I Find New Movies and TV Shows To Watch on Netflix? Where Can I Find New Movies and TV Shows To Watch on Netflix? Everybody loves Netflix, but can be hard to keep track of the shows arriving and departing from the service. Here are four websites that can help. Read More with the subscription. If a member could go into Costco and walk out with anything from the shelves without paying, it would be a similar scenario.
  • It’s still one person making a purchase at a time. Costco is still making money.
  • Costco will still be getting money if a non-member goes and buys groceries. Netflix is not receiving anything from an outside party having access to the password.
  • Costco explicitly says you can’t lend your card for that scenario. For the Netflix one, you’ve paid to have access and the person is more stealing from you than they are stealing from Netflix.

  • I don’t think either one is stealing, but the Costco scenario definitely feels worse to me. Probably because physical goods are involved, and Costco absorbs some of the cost of lower prices through their memberships.
  • I think it’s fine to go with someone to Costco, pick up their groceries, and have them pay you back, but I wouldn’t give someone my card. They would have to lie Prove Anything With Statistics Using Spurious Correlations [Weird & Wonderful Web] Prove Anything With Statistics Using Spurious Correlations [Weird & Wonderful Web] Statistics can be used to prove anything. You don't have to take our word for it, as a website called Spurious Correlations demonstrates how statistics can be bent and shaped to suit any bias. Read More to get past a Costco worker, which bothers me. However, if a Netflix worker asked me if I was using a friend’s password to log in, I would tell them yes, and I don’t really see that being a problem.
  • Both can be stealing — the Netflix subscription if the person uses it to avoid a fee he otherwise might have paid, and the card if your friend uses it to shop.
  • If it’s not a regular occurrence it is okay. If it is a regular occurrence I would consider it stealing.

Again, you could make either argument here. If a friend wants to make a trip to Costco with your membership, they’re still making money off his purchases. However, there’s a reason that Costco requires a membership, and breaking that rule is violating the agreement you made when you signed up.

Situational Ethics

I lastly asked the survey takers in which situations they would consider sharing a password. Most consider sharing with a significant other, roommate, or friend an acceptable practice:

10-Survey-Who-to-Share-With

A few rationalizations:

  • The only scenario I am comfortable with is sharing passwords with immediate family members in the same household, who might be using the same subscription to access TV.
  • Significant others usually share many things, including bank accounts. So I would not argue to sharing Netflix with my significant other. If you consider sharing a password with your significant other stealing, you must also consider a whole family sharing a Netflix account stealing.

What Say You?

Clearly, sharing passwords is still a divisional topic. One extreme holds that as long as you’re paying for the account, it’s yours to share with whom you please. The other side argues that outside of people in your household, sharing Netflix access for any length of time is wrong. If you’re in the middle, it depends on who you’re sharing access with and how long you’ll be sharing.

Do companies want you to share your accounts? It depends on the business, but Amazon Prime shipping can be shared with other people, as long as they reside in your home – there are other benefits of Prime 6 Amazon Prime Benefits You Might Be Ignoring Right Now 6 Amazon Prime Benefits You Might Be Ignoring Right Now Scratch the surface. Amazon Prime has so many more benefits that people have forgotten about or simply don't realize exist. Read More that don’t carry over with this, however.

Netflix has to know that people do this regularly, and they’ll adjust the subscription price as they see fit. It’s the case of the Categorical Imperative – if one or two people share a password it’s no big deal, but if everyone acted on this rule Netflix prices would likely skyrocket.

There’s also security risks associated with sharing your passwords How to Send Sensitive, Secure Emails, Passwords, and Files Without Fear How to Send Sensitive, Secure Emails, Passwords, and Files Without Fear So, here’s a common case: You need to share a password with someone, but if you just email it to them, it’s going to languish in their inbox and be exposed to any future hacker... Read More . No matter how secure your passwords are, sharing them with someone else decreases their safety dramatically – what if your friend shares your password with someone else, or stores it in plain text on their computer?

In addition, you might intentionally make your password weak Dissecting the 25 Worst Passwords in the World [Weird & Wonderful Web] Dissecting the 25 Worst Passwords in the World [Weird & Wonderful Web] There are many simple ways to create easy to remember, but difficult to break passwords. But not everyone gets it. As this list of the weakest passwords prove, it is a large tribe. Read More so it’s easier to remember and share, leading to decreased security. Two-factor authentication Lock Down These Services Now With Two-Factor Authentication Lock Down These Services Now With Two-Factor Authentication Two-factor authentication is the smart way to protect your online accounts. Let's take a look at few of the services you can lock-down with better security. Read More isn’t an option when your passwords are being used elsewhere, either.

In the end, each company has their own way of responding to this issue. Spotify only lets you stream with your account on a single device at any one time, Amazon Prime sharing doesn’t include any benefits except shipping, and even Netflix has limits on how many users can use an account at once. Whether this is stealing depends on your view of the content that you’ve paid for, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Interestingly, usernames and passwords may soon be a thing of the past Why Usernames & Passwords Are A Thing Of The Past, And How To Cope With This Why Usernames & Passwords Are A Thing Of The Past, And How To Cope With This With every other hacked database and credit card scandal that occurs, it becomes more evident that we can't rely on passwords for much longer. But if not passwords, what else is there? Read More , negating this very issue.

Now, I want to hear your take! Is sharing passwords stealing? What do you think about the Costco comparison? I’m looking forward to taking this further in the comments!

Image Credits:Smuggler selling contraband by MedicMedic via Shutterstock

  1. John Gileo
    March 31, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    i'm paying for four HD screens. So I share my my brother, sister, and my parents.

  2. lt
    February 9, 2016 at 7:23 pm

    I pay for 2 screens. I should be able to use those two screens any way I see fit.

  3. Anu
    February 9, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    Sharing my password with others is wrong, so I don't share my Spotify password with anyone.
    Since you only pay a fixed amount of money for the whole Spotify music library, I think it would be fair if friends/family members pay for their own subscription.
    Streaming services are very cheap and pretty much everyone can afford them.
    The Costco analogy is flawed - When you shop at Costco (or similar) you don't pay a fixed amount, but the amount varies depending on the number of items you buy.

    • Ben Stegner
      February 10, 2016 at 4:25 pm

      Right, but Costco also requires you to pay for a membership in order to enjoy their bulk purchases and lower prices. If you didn't pay for the membership yet use someone else's card, you're enjoying the benefits without paying the cost.

  4. m-p {3}
    February 9, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    I personally pay for my Netflix account (2HD screen), and my wife and I do not use it at the same time, so there's always a screen available.

    I share my account with my parents, who rarely use Netflix but at least they can do so whenever they want. They would most likely not subscribe if they didn't have access to my account.

    • Ben Stegner
      February 10, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      Seems like this is an instance where that's perfectly acceptable. It allows your parents to enjoy shows and movies and you're not losing anything.

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