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After a bad breakup, who gets the Netflix and HBOGo passwords?

Breaking up is hard to do. It's even harder when your ex keeps adding 'Planet Earth' to your queue.


Maggie Foucault


Posted on May 15, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 8:04 pm CDT

Claire Landsbaum, 21, was in love. It was one of those intense, end-of-college affairs, and the Texas native says it was the first time she was ever deeply invested in a relationship. But after just four months, Landsbaum’s boyfriend unceremoniously dumped her.

Although Landsbaum had given her ex her Netflix password, their shared streaming services weren’t on the forefront of her mind in the aftermath of their breakup. “I was too concerned with gathering all the shit he had given me into a box,” she says.

But right after graduation, Landsbaum moved to Austin, TX for a three-month internship. Like most of us in a strange place for a short amount of time, Landsbaum self-medicated by binge-watching House of Cards and re-watching Amelie for the fifteenth time. 

But one day when she logged into her account, she noticed something was off. In her recently watched queue was Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. And not just one episode, but 12. Having never watched the show, Landsbaum was immediately suspicious.

“I tweeted about it, like, ‘who is watching this on my Netflix?,’” she later told me. It didn’t take her long to find out that it was her ex-boyfriend.

Landsbaum’s Netflix nightmare isn’t an isolated case. While no one would give an acquaintance the password to, say, their bank account, or their Facebook account, people are increasingly using streaming accounts that are paid for by an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend—or even, in many cases, an ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s sister. 

Some might say there’s something unethical about using the password for a streaming service you’re not paying for. But according to Jenna Wortham of the New York Times, it’s a common practice among younger people, many of whom might not be able to afford a Netflix subscription or even a TV. While Wortham notes that it’s difficult to track exactly how many people are doing this, an Exstreamist survey published on May 4 shows that 49 per cent of people under 29 share their passwords. Like an urban legend, HBOGo passwords are passed on through long lines of friends-of-friends-of-friends.

Like an urban legend, HBOGo passwords are passed on through long lines of friends-of-friends-of-friends.

But why are we so willing to share streaming access with our friends, especially when it’s highly likely that the password you’re using for your streaming account is the same one you use for, say, your online banking account? Well, unlike giving someone access to your bank or Twitter account, a friend’s poor decision to binge-watch Pretty Little Liars isn’t going to ruin your finances or your online reputation. (Unless you have your Netflix linked to your Facebook account, in which case it’s your own fault.)  And for those of us still mooching off of mom and dad, it’s even easier to share a password that doesn’t cost you a dime.

Barret Elward, 27, of Hoboken, N.J., has no qualms about handing his password out to friends and family. In the past, Elward has had to travel frequently for work, mostly to countries where Netflix wasn’t yet available and proxy servers were too slow to stream. “I couldn’t access [Netflix] overseas, so I figured someone might as well use it,” he told the Daily Dot.

Elward considered the cost of Netflix’s $8-a-month service an easy way to give back to family, friends, and potential partners. “Why not give it out? It doesn’t harm me in any way and I’m already paying for it, so why not gain people’s appreciation?,” he said. And because Elward couldn’t access Netflix overseas, there was no danger of him logging on to try to watch the latest season of Orange is the New Black, only to have that awkward “your account is already in use” message pop up. 

Indeed, at $8, a shared Netflix account can be a small way to keep someone in your life, long after they’ve left. Three months before my lease ended at my old apartment, for instance, I had an argument with my roommates. At one point, we had been best friends, and I had given them both access to my Netflix account. 

During those three months we spent not talking to each other, my main window into their lives was through our recently watched queue. I could always tell when one of my roommates was extremely hung over if she watched 7 episodes of Gossip Girl in a row, or that the other roommate was hanging out with her hipster boyfriend when Tiny Furniture showed up in the queue. 

I could always tell when one of my roommates was extremely hung over if she watched 7 episodes of Gossip Girl in a row, or that the other roommate was hanging out with her hipster boyfriend when Tiny Furniture showed up in the queue. 

Part of me was irked by their freeloading. “You won’t speak to me, but you’re willing to use my Netflix password and judge me for watching so much Intervention?” But then our lease ended, and they both stopped using my account. At that point, I realized I had just lost that last tenuous connection to them. I would gladly have let them continue using my account, if only so I could continue having that glimpse into their lives. 

So what happens to your shared Netflix account when that summer fling crashes and burns, or when you get into a fight with your best friends? Or what should you do if your HBOGo reaches critical mass, and three other people you barely know get to watch the latest Game of Thrones instead of you?

Sometimes, it’s as simple as just changing your password, or stopping using Netflix altogether. For Elward, kicking other people off of his account was easy: He let his account lapse, but he got no complaints from his friends after he did. “No one ever bothered me about Netflix going down,” he said. 

For Landsbaum, however, sharing an account with her mom and sister made kicking her freeloading ex off her Netflix a little more complicated. Every time she saw Parts Unknown pop up on her “recently watched” queue, she was reminded of him. She tried to convince her mom to change the password, but, “she wouldn’t, because she was worried she couldn’t remember.”

Luckily, Landsbaum’s tweet was was enough to get her ex out of her life, streaming and otherwise. Her ex’s roommate saw the tweet and texted her confirmation that it was her ex who was using her account. “[He] probably told [my ex] I was onto him,” Landsbaum surmised.

But even though her generosity got her into trouble, Landsbaum has no regrets. “That’s what you do when you’re in love,” she told me. “You give your password away.”

Photo via Keirsten Marie/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 15, 2015, 11:30 am CDT