Thursday, July 03, 2008

The price of privacy: Google, Viacom, and the one-billion-dollar assault on freedom

By Michael J.W. Stickings

As you may have heard by now, a federal judge has ruled that Google, which owns YouTube, must turn over to Viacom information regarding "the viewing habits of every user who has ever watched any video on YouTube," according to the BBC. "The viewing log, which will be handed to Viacom, contains the log-in ID of users, the computer IP address (online identifier) and video clip details."

Viacom is suing Google for copyright infringement: "When it initiated legal action in March 2007 Viacom said it had identified about 160,000 unauthorised clips of its programmes on the website, which had been viewed more than 1.5 billion times." This is why, for example, you can't find Daily Show clips on YouTube anymore. Viacom has forced Google to pull them.

Orin Kerr, one of the better legal minds in the blogosphere, thinks the judge's ruling is "incorrect." While it seems to me that Viacom is making a mistake targeting YouTube -- it may or may not have lost money over videos that had been copyrighted, but could it not work something out to take advantage of YouTube's immense popularity? -- but, obviously, the problem here has to do with privacy.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it, "[t]he court's order... erroneously ignores the protections of the federal Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), and threatens to expose deeply private information about what videos are watched by YouTube users... The Court's erroneous ruling is a set-back to privacy rights, and will allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube."

As The New York Times is reporting, Google and Viacom are "hoping to come up with a way to protect the anonymity of the site's visitors. Viacom [says] that the information would be safeguarded by a protective order restricting access to the data to outside lawyers, who will use it solely to press Viacom's $1 billion copyright suit against Google."

Which is all well and good, but how can we be so sure? Will there be oversight? What will Viacom do with the information? Will it ever pass it along, in whole or in part, to, say a federal government that claims it needs it for the sake of "national security"? We already know what the present administration thinks of domestic surveillance. What if it wants these records, too?

Essentially, a possibly "incorrect" court ruling has opened up the possibility that these personal records -- millions and millions of them -- could be used and abused, and that the privacy of millions and millions of people could be violated.

It's bad enough that Viacom will have all that personal information. But what if it ends up in the hands of a more nefarious organization than a massive media conglomerate?

And all because Viacom wants a billion dollars.



For more, see our own Libby Spencer over at The Impolitic.

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