We Know What You've Been Watching on YouTube

A court has ordered Google to turn over a database that links users to every video they've watched on the popular Web site YouTube. Jennifer Urban, director of the University of Southern California Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic, says the ruling has big implications for online privacy.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, how the uninsured get better healthcare in Germany. First, you probably watch videos on YouTube. Well, your personal information, your user name, and your computer address could be handed over to Viacom as part of its lawsuit against Google. Google owns YouTube, and that was a federal judge's order this week. Viacom claims a lot of its copyrighted materials, shows like "The Colbert Report," a lot of them are illegally posted on YouTube.

I wanted to find out why Viacom would want everyone's information, as opposed to just that of the people illegally uploading, and so I phoned Jennifer Urban. She runs the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic at USC here in Los Angeles. She says as part of its lawsuit, Viacom wants to determine how many people watch its videos on YouTube and when they watch them.

Professor JENNIFER URBAN (Intellectual Property and Technology Law, University of Southern California Gould School of Law): So, from what I gather from the judge's order, Viacom doesn't want to just know how many times the videos have been viewed, but the time period during which they were being viewed. So, they want to understand that timeframe. It's puzzling to me why they would also need the login ID and the IP address for that purpose.

BRAND: So, aside from privacy concerns, are there any concerns that Viacom could then go after people like the record industry did? Go after people for downloading videos illegally.

Prof. URBAN: Well, in other news reports, Viacom has been quoted as saying that it will not go after individual infringers. However, if this becomes a precedent, then other litigators may not refrain in the way Viacom has said it will.

BRAND: You know, privacy experts such as yourself, they say they're shocked at this ruling, and that it will remind people just how much personal information a huge company like Google has. Well, how much information does it have?

Prof. URBAN: Google has information about every person who's logged in, every time they view the video, what videos they viewed, and it's all tied back to their user name. It has all of the searched terms that people have used to find videos tied back to their user name and the IP address of the computer they were using. And it's hard to say, you know, how much information they actually have on their servers. And you know, Google is, of course, not at all the only company that has this kind of information recorded. Many, many Internet media companies have this kind of information about users.

BRAND: So this is really a reminder that nothing that you do online is strictly private.

Prof. URBAN: Almost everything you do online requires you to leave tracks that can be tracked back to you.

BRAND: Let's say Google does comply with the judge's order as written, and turns over these IP addresses. There must be millions or maybe billions of them, right? I mean, how can you actually turn over all these addresses? And how does Viacom go through all that information?

Prof. URBAN: Yes. Well, the judge's order says that this database alone, which is the three pieces of information I mentioned, is 12 terabytes. That's a huge amount of data. It's going to cost a lot for Google to produce it. It would cost a tremendous amount for Viacom to go through with it, as you've said. This is a massive discovery request.

BRAND: So is this it, or will they come up with a different solution, the two sides?

Prof. URBAN: The two sides have both discussed somehow anonymizing (ph) the information, and I don't know more beyond that. Yesterday, apparently Google did ask the judge to reconsider the order. The judge dismissed Google's argument that this information fell under the Video Privacy Protection Act. There's actually a law that governs when data about a user's records, related to video rentals or similar kinds of audiovisual material, can be turned over. That law was passed in response to a situation in 1989, when Judge Bork was up for the Supreme Court nominee, and his video-rental records were disclosed.

That obviously caused kind of a kerfuffle at the time, and the Video Privacy Protection Act was passed in response, to protect exactly this kind of information, because we understand that the kind of information that comes from what people choose to view, what information they are accessing, what questions they're trying to answer, it's just deeply personal, and it's fundamental to the freedom of inquiry that we value here.

Now, the judge dismissed the Video Privacy Protection Act defense that Google put force in. It's a little bit unclear exactly why. It may be because the judge thought that user names and IP addresses were not sufficiently personally identifiable information to be covered by the act. I think that that is unlikely to be of a case, and that it should apply.

BRAND: Jennifer Urban is the director of the intellectual property and technology law clinic at USC and we've been talking about a judge's order to Google to turn over all its records linking users to every video that they've watched on YouTube. Jennifer Urban, thank you very much.

Prof. URBAN: You're most welcome. Thank you.

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