Turns out Big Brother’s watching what you’re watching. But don’t worry…yet

Turns out Big Brother’s watching what you’re watching. But don’t worry…yet

What started in early 2007 as just another simmering lawsuit against YouTube boiled over halfway through the summer into a full-blown battle over Internet privacy. While it’s still unclear who’s on which side, it’s fairly obvious that in the end, users are the ones losing out. And for that, we have Google to thank.

In March of 2007 Viacom filed suit in U.S. District Court against Google Inc, YouTube’s parent, seeking US$1-billion in compensation from the popular video sharing site for allegedly making 160,000 clips of the company’s programming available to users.[1] The case progressed slowly and didn’t attract much attention until early July, when Judge Louis Stanton granted Viacom’s demand that Google turn over its records of which users were viewing which videos, when. Google had attempted to argue that users’ privacy concerns should allow it to keep the information secret. The judge was unimpressed, holding that “[Google’s] privacy concerns are speculative.” To comply with the order, Google had to hand over a database that matched a user’s YouTube ID and their IP address with the videos they had watched.[3]

Predictably, the decision was met with outrage, and the order was decried as overly broad and unnecessary. Legal experts anticipated that it would be overturned on appeal. In response to intense user backlash, two weeks after Judge Stanton issued his ruling Viacom and Google worked out a deal to allow the search giant to scramble the user-identifiable information.

While Viacom got some good press by compromising, users shouldn’t let Google off so easy. Once again the company is straying from its unofficial motto: don’t be evil. The real question we need to be asking is why they were keeping this information in the first place. Recording a viewer’s IP address isn’t necessary to provide many of Google’s features; the company has already taken steps to anonymise IP addresses connected with search information. Why not video information? Privacy experts have been warning Google about this practice for some time, to no avail.[4] The company continues to insist that IP addresses, without more, can’t be used to identify users. This might be true in a technical sense, but the user database includes more – a lot more. Viacom claimed to not be interested in linking individual users to the content they viewed. But can we really trust future litigants to be so discerning?

It’s unfortunate that Judge Stanton chose to believe that Google’s privacy concerns were speculative. The concerns are real. In 2006 AOL released search records from thousands of ostensibly anonymous users; reporters from the New York Times were able to find at least one woman by looking at her pattern of searches.[5] Moreover, Google’s argument has been accepted before: in 2006 it successfully resisted US Department of Justice efforts to obtain its search records by arguing it would be a violation of users’ privacy rights.[6] The search giant needs to learn from these lawsuits, reform its privacy policies, and get back to not being evil.

[1] News of the lawsuit was widely reported, including at http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9588_22-151503.html
[2] See the order at Justia’s online database for the case, item 117, particularly pages 12-14: http://news.justia.com/cases/featured/new-york/nysdce/1:2007cv02103/302164/
[3] See the Globe and Mail’s story on the ruling here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080703.wgoogle04/BNStory/Technology/home
[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7488009.stm
[5] AOL released the search information for research purposes. See http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/04/technology/04youtube.html
[6] http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/jul/04/youtube.google