This NY Times article (link at the bottom), regarding a judge’s recent order that Google turn over YouTube usage information to Viacom in response to a copyright-infringement lawsuit, does a good job of hinting at the hypocracy on both sides of the case.
The crux of the suit is this. Viacom asserts that the success of YouTube is partly due to the site making available free viewing of copyrighted work, such as television shows. Owners of those works have never been paid by Google or YouTube.
Included in the data demanded by Viacom is the IP address of each user who interacted with the site since its founding in 2005.
Both firms have claimed that an IP address alone is not enough information to identify a specific person with certainty. And Viacom claims that they won’t go after users who uploaded copyrighted videos; they simply want to correlate YouTube’s explosive growth with the availability of unlicensed media.
Viacom may actually be telling the truth right now. But once they have that information, their tune may change.
Because, for one thing, the claim about IP addresses is misleading. There are databases readily available that accurately map IPs to specific countries. In the US, that mapping can even be done to down to the city level, due to major ISPs operating in areas with high population density.
Once you know what city a user is in, perhaps his or her login or domain name betrays enough information to get a phone number, real name, or address. Or maybe one of those data can be correlated with other lists available on the net. Or maybe a single reverse DNS query is all that’s needed.
True, that process may be difficult to 100% automate. But they’ll start with the addresses that show up the most in the YouTube traffic. And those are likely to be the easiest targets to triangulate, due to their heavy web usage.
It’s not Viacom’s position in all of this that bothers me, though. If I owned copyrights on a bunch of television shows, I too would want to identify the worst violators of those rights and remind them to stop.
It’s Google’s “Don’t be Evil” mantra that sticks out like a sore thumb here.
Google objects to handing over the YouTube usage data, partly on the grounds that identities could be betrayed. As already stated, I readily agree. But that contradicts the position, shared by both companies, that IP address alone isn’t a risk.
Furthermore, as observed by the Times writer, YouTube’s enormous popularity is such that the data store in question is immense. We’re talking hundreds of millions of users.
How different is that from a single company owning data correlating every video tape anyone has ever rented? Or every library book people have ever borrowed?
My point is this: if Google really wanted to not be evil, they would have scrubbed the data as it accumulated (or at least when YouTube was acquired). Large stores of personal data are always going to be a target for hackers and lawsuits. The best way to take care of your users is to avoid storing the data in the first place.
The Don’t be Evil thing is just like greenwashing: that is, companies – a great example is British Petroleum – that put on a environmentally friendly veneer, but don’t change the true nature of their business.
The world needs oil companies. The world needs internet search companies. But at the end of the day, that’s what they are: companies, and they exist to profit. Consumers musn’t forget to look deeper than the greenwashed, and don’t-be-evil-washed, surface.