Who Owns Your Image on the Internet? The popularity of camera phones and lightweight digital cameras means previously private and embarrassing moments are now made public. Who owns your image on the Internet, and are there limits to privacy?
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Who Owns Your Image on the Internet?

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Who Owns Your Image on the Internet?

Who Owns Your Image on the Internet?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

My most embarrassing moment used to be a little feature in Reader's Digest, an amusing, self-deprecating paragraph or two where somebody told a funny story about themselves and that was that. Now, imagine that moment caught on video and posted on the Internet where millions, maybe hundreds of millions of people not only to get to snicker but go on to post sarcastic remarks about how dumb you looked, and then e-mail the whole mess to their friends and to your friends, too.

With all the camera phones and digital cameras out there, privacy is harder and harder to come by, and with Web sites like YouTube, you can spend all day watching unsuspecting subjects doing something foolish in what they thought was a private moment. Why do we find somebody else's embarrassment funny, and who owns your image on the Internet anyway?

Later in the hour, the commentator, the candidate, and the canard. But first, privacy and the Internet. If you've been uploaded, if you download, we'd like to hear from you. Where's the line on privacy? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And you can now comment on our blog, too, just launched today. There's a link at npr.org/talk.

And we begin with an unsuspecting victim and now YouTube sensation Marylynn Aminrazavi. During the summer of 2005, Marylynn was on vacation with her family on Virginia Beach, listening innocently to her daughter's iPod, never suspecting that her sing-along would get so much attention.

(Soundbite of video recording)

Ms. MARYLYNN AMINRAZAVI (Vacationer): (Singing) Baby, all through the night I'll make love to you when you want me to, and I will not let go till you tell me. Baby, tonight...

CONAN: And with us here in Studio 3A and turning red all over again is Marylynn Aminrazavi, singing to Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love To You." She's with us in the studio. Nice of you to come in.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I gather you were completely unaware of that anybody was recording this.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Absolutely. I was in a moment, I was on vacation, and I was nap - not napping actually, but I was listening to my daughter's iPod, which I wasn't used to doing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: And suddenly just said, hey, I'm just going to relax and enjoy the moment and away I went.

CONAN: And after a minute and 13 seconds - we only played about 15 seconds of that singing - but after about a minute and 13 seconds, you suddenly realized that all is not what you thought.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Absolutely. I couldn't hear anything because the iPod was so loud, and of course my singing, and unbeknownst to me I opened one eye and I saw my son videotaping me...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: ...and the rest of the beach actually watching and kind of enjoying my moment with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And you said - I think the quote is - I am so mortified.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Oh, I was, and I still am, even - every time I hear that tape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, but even so, at that moment - all right, you've been videotaped, maybe play it for a couple - you know, you don't think this is - how many people have now seen this thing?

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: The last - my son told me last night was - I think it's 1,800,000, and that's I believe just in this country. And he's shown me sites from Japan to Norway and Iran, and it's been everywhere.

CONAN: It's been everywhere.


CONAN: You - I'm sure there are people who come up to you and, you know - from across the street people pointing and laughing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Well, thankfully they don't recognize me so I haven't had that happen, but I've had several friends and family and people that I've gotten to know come up and notice, so...

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and where do you work for living?

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Actually I'm a nurse. I'm practicing right now to be a - or studying to be a nurse practitioner, soon to graduate. I work for a dialysis company here in the area, and I am also at George Mason, going to school...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: ...so of course friends, family, and colleagues have all seen it, and I've been, you know, laughing right along with them.

CONAN: At Christmas, your stocking stuffer was how many Boyz II Men albums?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Several.

CONAN: Several.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: I haven't heard from them yet, however, thank God.

CONAN: Well, they should be very happy that you're publicizing their record. As you went through this, have you gained any insight on to why we find this sort of thing funny?

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: It's absolutely amazing to me because first of all I never YouTube even existed. And you know, my son is a budding film producer, and he's made short videos and that sort of thing, and so he's had several of his videos on YouTube. And he mentioned to me, you know, oh, yeah, you know, I've shown my friends, and then he said I put it on YouTube, which meant to nothing to me.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: And so basically when we first got the call from ABC News that they wanted to put it on "Good Morning America," I was absolutely shocked, and I still am, that people find it so amazing. And I think - I've just been kind of enjoying the moment as well now, and I think people do like to see someone else embarrassed and, you know, just - maybe like to see them uncomfortable for a few moments, catch them off guard.

CONAN: It's that old Mel Brooks line. If I cut my thumb, it's tragedy. If you fall into a sewer and drown, that's comedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Exactly, exactly.

CONAN: Well, thanks for coming in and being such a sport about this.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Thank you.

CONAN: We really appreciate your time.

Ms. AMINRAZAVI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Joining us now is John Cook, a senior writer for Radar magazine. In the current issue he wrote about some of these unsuspecting YouTube sensations and what happens once their lives become very, very public. He's with us from our studio in New York, and it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JOHN COOK (Radar Magazine): It's nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And we heard about what happened to Marylynn and fairly mild as far as these things go on, but other examples have not been quite so benign.

Mr. COOK: No, there are some people who've actually really had their lives affected in a negative way. Just to give you an idea of the sort the scope of this, Marylynn said she was up to 1.8 million. When I wrote about her in Radar, that story went to press just about a month ago, and it was at 1.3 million. And I was talking to your producer just last week, who said it was at 1.7 million.


Mr. COOK: So just in a couple days, another 100,000 people have seen that clip of her.

CONAN: And for another example, I think the Star Wars Kid, which predates even YouTube - and by the way, every time we say YouTube, we do have to spell it out: Y-O-U-T-U-B-E.com, and it's all one word - but the Star Wars Kid, that video may have been seen by more people than have seen anything.

Mr. COOK: It has been viewed 900 million times. Now that could include some people viewing it more than once, but still that's an astonishing number of downloads for that video. And Ghyslain Raza is the Canadian kid who is featured in that video and, you know, he sued the people who uploaded it online, and for I think $200,000, and settled out of court. But he in that court case in Canada, he described how miserable his life had become. He was just a - people would shout Star Wars Kid at him in school. He had to eventually drop out of school and be home-schooled because he couldn't take being in school anymore. He had to engage the services of a psychiatrist. I mean he was being ridiculed globally by everybody, and he was 14 years old.

CONAN: And he's lucky enough, I guess he can grow up, change his looks, grow a beard, do something.

Mr. COOK: Right, right, right. But also that is going to be with him - I mean Ghyslain Raza is a rather unusual name, and any time anyone Googles it, that's what comes up, that video, which, you know, for your listeners it's - he was in his AV studio at a school, and he thought he would have some fun with a video camera and record himself holding a bar like a sword, doing some "Star Wars" moves and doing these sort of acrobatic moves. And he's awkward and a little heavyset, and it's sort of comical, the disjunction between this, you know, doughy 14-year-old kid and this sort of fierce character he's trying to portray. And he did a bunch of takes of it and was whirling around like a dervish, and he made the mistake of leaving the tape in the machine, and one of his...

CONAN: Now former friends.

Mr. COOK: ...right, right - found it and put it on online. And that is going to be with him for the rest of his life. There's no - unless he changes his name.

CONAN: I was going to say, I don't think it'll effect Mr. Smith's career much at all.

Mr. COOK: Right, right, right.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. Our guest is John Cook, a senior writer for Radar magazine, author or "Prisoners of YouTube" in Radar magazine. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. With us is Juan. Juan's calling us from Rockford, Illinois.

JUAN (Caller): Yeah.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JUAN: Yes, and, you know, just to make clear, my name - you know, Juan is an alias, so like if there was another Juan who something similar happened to, I don't want people to think it's him. But I was at a New Year's Eve party one time, and I was wearing a kilt. And true to the spirit, I was wearing it traditionally. And one of the hosts at the party snapped a shot of me - a kind of an up-kilt shot - and that wound up on the Internet.

Now, you know, fortunately, none of my co-workers or anyone have come across that but, you know, the way I look at it, with all of this stuff, you know, being posted on the Internet and people seeing people's true colors, I think it reminds us all that we are all human, we all have our goofy sides, we all have our playful sides or whatever. And I think that in a world with so much pretension, so many false fronts, I think it's kind of good that people are realizing, hey, you know, everyone's got their little embarrassing moments, everyone gets caught at the stoplight picking their nose, you know.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COOK: Can I ask how did you find out that it wound up on the Internet?

JUAN: Actually, you know, I think it was the girl I was seeing at the time told me about it. She was like, oh, yeah, I checked...

CONAN: Well, presumably, one of the few who would recognize you from that angle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JUAN: Well, she wasn't like a co-worker or anything so, you know, that - I mean, you know, in my personal life, people know that I'm a very, you know, open spirit and that, you know, I'm not the type of person who has any secrets. In my professional life, you know, I work in education, so it's a little, you know, so it's a little bit more - I'm significantly more reserved.

CONAN: Yeah, but if it identified you a little more clearly and if it had been downloaded 900,000 times or so, might you feel a little differently?

JUAN: Possibly. Who knows? Maybe it would have gotten me a career in the porn industry. Who knows?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Juan, thanks for the...

JUAN: I mean, you know, I mean there's also - yeah, I'm sure that if more people would have seen it, it could have - if it would have been like 900,000 times or something, it might have been more embarrassing. Who knows? Maybe it would've been really - I mean it's hard to say what if, you know, with hypotheticals.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JUAN: But, you know, I know - I mean that's something to keep in mind. Whenever I'm doing anything that could be embarrassing later, or whatever, I know that we're living in that kind of a pseudo Big Brother society where someone's got a camera phone, someone's got a digital camera and, you know, I think it's just - if anything, it should be a wakeup call to people to just, you know, quit trying to be someone other than who you are.

CONAN: Or...

JUAN: ...or expecting other people...

CONAN: Or maybe just avoid kilts would be another way to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Juan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JUAN: Okay.

CONAN: John Cook, we just have a few seconds before we have to go to a break. But his point is - I've not heard that, you know, maybe this is a sign that we're all lightening up and we're all recognizing humanity in each other.

Mr. COOK: He seems like a very easygoing person. I don't know if I'd have the same reaction. I think it depends on what, you know, in the case of YouTube, what the video is showing. I mean with Ghyslain Raza, you know, I mean he's going to apply for a job somewhere, and someone's going to look him up and see that he was the Star Wars Kid, but they're not going to say, oh, that disqualifies him from the job. But there are other people - there's Mark Hicks, who goes by the Internet name Afro Ninja, who's a stuntman, and he was filmed messing up a stunt, and it cost him work because people thought of him as a bad stuntman, even though he's not a bad stuntman. He just messed up one time.

CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break. John Cook of Radar magazine will be back. Join us: 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking about privacy and the Internet, and who really owns your image on the Web, especially if that image happens to be one of your more embarrassing moments. We'll get to that answer with a question - we'll ask an attorney that question in a few minutes. Right now our guest is John Cook, a senior writer for Radar magazine, who wrote "Prisoners of YouTube" in the March issue of that magazine.

Of course we want to hear from you as well. If you've been uploaded, if you download, where is the line on privacy? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Heather, Heather with us from Portland, Oregon.

HEATHER (Caller): Hi, yes. My - I just really have an observation mainly, that it's sort of like the German expression scheudenfrade, the shameful joy that, you know, getting...

CONAN: Schadenfreude, but go ahead.

HEATHER: I'm sorry, I didn't have the pronunciation.

CONAN: That's OK.

HEATHER: But you understand that.

CONAN: Taking pleasure in the pain of others.

HEATHER: Exactly, yes, and in this case the embarrassment towards our - and the caller earlier, Juan, I would hope that it would a uniting, not a dividing thing, but I'm afraid it's probably more like high school.

CONAN: Yeah, high school. High school is a phrase, John Cook, that occurred to me a lot of times...

Mr. COOK: Right.

CONAN: ...as I read your article. Very few of these instances actually happened in high school, though there were the kids who caught their teachers in a rant at something or another, but really this is post-high school high school.

Mr. COOK: It really is. I mean there definitely is schadenfreude in its - you know, it's not a new thing that we've sort of delighted in the embarrassment of others. I mean, you know, "America's Funniest Home Videos" has been on TV for...

HEATHER: And "Cops."

CONAN: And before that, "Candid Camera."

Mr. COOK: Exactly. The difference here I think is two things. One, it's everybody has at their fingertips a global distribution network. Anybody can put this stuff out there and it can go to anybody around the planet. And the other thing is that there are, you know, devices everywhere - in our pockets, all over the place - that record things. And you know, there were 780 million camera phones sold worldwide in the past few years. And so the combination of those two factors means that, you know, the number of embarrassing, humiliating moments sort of stays static, but the number that were caught on tape and the number that get uploaded has increased dramatically. And it's almost sort of like a sort of contemporary Roman Coliseum. You know, we're out for blood, you know, and...

CONAN: Well, you do write about - and, Heather, thanks very much for the call.

HEATHER: Thank you much as well. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You do write about people setting other people up.

Mr. COOK: Yeah, absolutely. That's sort of a phenomenon in high schools now. Kids - high school kids are intentionally riling their teachers up so that they can record them, you know, freaking out and getting angry on a camera phone and put it on YouTube. There was a teacher in Canada - for some reason, a lot of these are sort of Canadian incidents - but there was a teacher in Quebec who is as yet unnamed, but who dealt with problem children. And they riled him up and recorded him screaming and freaking out.

YouTube actually pulled down that video, interestingly, and there are a lot of other videos that are embarrassing that they haven't pulled down. But he had to take a medical leave because he was so distraught over having this happen to him, and there are a lot of schools - school districts in the U.S. and elsewhere that are - either are considering or have already banned camera phones from classrooms.

CONAN: Another incident that happened at a school. I think a seventh grader singing and dancing, a somewhat chubby girl, and was caught, and interestingly about the sort of ethics of this business, you went to the proprietor of another site; he said, look, we took that down; that was, you know, you really shouldn't make fun of her for that. And you went and you found it right on their Web site and that it had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Mr. COOK: Yeah, it's eBaum's World, is the name of the Web site. And it was founded by a guy named Eric Baum, who his first sort of foray into Internet fame was he, using audio, recorded his teacher freaking out a couple of years ago and put the audio online. And it became a hit, and a lot of people downloaded it, and that's how he developed a - eBaum's World is this Web site of funny, humiliating videos.

And I was asking someone who works for him, you know, what is the line, like is there anything that you, you know, is there a line you wouldn't cross? And he brought up the case of Miracle Jackson, who's the name of that girl, and said, yeah, it was a little embarrassing for her and the school asked us to take it down and we did. And then of course he didn't. And the reason he didn't is because, you know, it's - a lot of people watch it, it increases their page views and the number of hits and it increases their advertising revenue.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Gina, Gina calling us from Peoria, Arizona.

GINA (Caller): Hey.


GINA: I download and I upload people all the time. But as far as I'm concerned, if they're doing something in public, they have a million eyes on them anyway, and people shouldn't do things in public they don't want privately viewed, as far as I'm concerned. But I'm also a member of an online social networking group called MEETin.org, and that's one of the ways we advertise, you know, come out with us, have fun, because we do fun stuff. Like I'm on YouTube as Albinotoad, and we have "MeetinPhoenix Does the Chicken Dance." It's a bunch of grown adults...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GINA: ...wearing bunny ears standing there doing a chicken dance. And it's kind of embarrassing, but we all knew it was being filmed, and it's all good as long as everybody's consensual, as far as I'm concerned.

CONAN: A-ha, and you have no problems uploading stuff you see people - wacky stuff you see people doing in public.

GINA: As long as they're in public, yeah. I'm not going to go to somebody's house and do it privately. If they see I have a camera and they don't stop me, then as far as I'm concerned, it's free game. But if they stop me or say, hey, delete that or, you know, whatever, I'll take down anything anybody wants; I won't publish it, or I'll send it to them first and say, hey, can I publish this? Like yeah or no, and whatever they say is the rule.

CONAN: All right, that's interesting, Gina. Thanks very much.

Mr. COOK: Well, the - I mean the difference is that a lot of - there a lot of people who don't give consents to having these things, and whether it was public or private, they don't give consent, and they don't have a choice in the matter. It's just, you know, it's this sort of fickle - the fickle Internet. And all of a sudden you can wake up one morning, like Marylynn did, and there are hundreds of thousands of people laughing at you.

CONAN: Well, let's see what the law has to say about this. Fred von Lohmann is a senior staff attorney with the online civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He's with us today from studios at member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice of you to be with us.

Mr. FRED VON LOHMANN (Senior Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And given what Gina was just saying, is it legal to post a video on the Internet without the permission of the subject?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, I think Gina actually had the rule of thumb pretty well in mind. If you are recorded in public, then you know, there really is very little you can do to try to get that material removed. The idea is you were in public, and anyone could have observed you then. And the fact that you were recorded and others can observe you later doesn't change the equation. So the general rule is if you're being filmed in public, there's very little you can do.

CONAN: What about the case of, for example, the Star Wars Kid who was in the privacy of his own home, and the recording got out anyway?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, the Star Wars Kid's story is actually a very interesting exception because he was the one who actually did the filming. And so ironically enough, he's actually the copyright owner. Our copyright law vests ownership in the person who basically presses the record button. So that case is really odd in the sense that most of these videos were not recorded by the person who's being embarrassed, for obvious reasons...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: ...but in that case you had that special circumstance, that he had forgotten the film in the camera, and that was then discovered and posted by his classmates. And so if you're the one who made the recording, you'll have certain abilities, thanks to copyright law, that might allow you to control it to some degree. And as Gina correctly observed, if someone has invaded your home, then privacy laws may well kick in and protect you there. For example, if someone had put a video camera outside your bedroom window with a zoom lens through the curtains, that would be a very different circumstance than being recorded on a public beach singing along with the Backstreet Boys.

CONAN: Yeah. John Cook, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the Star Wars Kid sue his former friends and reach a settlement?

Mr. COOK: He did. They settled for an undisclosed amount. I think the initial suit was for - in the area of $200 or $300,000, but they settled it out of court. But I don't know if that involved copyright at all.

CONAN: Yeah, I was going to ask Fred von Lohmann, was that because he owned the copyright? They were distributing his film without permission.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: My recollection was that that was one of the issues that was raised in that suit. There may have also been a privacy angle given, that this was recorded by him for his own personal use in a private context. I just am not sure.

Mr. COOK: If I could ask Fred a question. What about ownership of your public image? I know like Tom Waits has sued people who - for appropriating what he thought to be his singing voice in commercials. Is there any case that can be made if, you know, YouTube is being enriched because 1.3 million people are going to watch Marylynn Aminrazavi, is there any way that she has a case because it's her image that's being used?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, it's interesting. There are a couple of different questions in there. Generally speaking, your right to control your image only extends to commercial uses, so Tom Waits has sued several companies for using his voice, or a likeness of his voice, to sell products, to sell cars, to sell other products, and you do have a right to prevent people from using your image in a way that suggests your endorsement or sponsorship of a commercial product. That's obviously how celebrity sports stars and others make a living to a large extent.

CONAN: And why we always hear all celebrity voices impersonated.

Mr. COOK: Exactly. Obviously that wasn't enough for Mr. Wade.


Mr. COOK: But the other issue is whether or not you can hold YouTube responsible as an intermediary. They of course aren't the ones who made the video. They're not the ones who posted the video. They are hosting it on behalf of their tens of millions of users.

And the law has been relatively generous to intermediaries to attempt to protect them from all of these lawsuits that would otherwise befall them. And so we have a couple of features in our law that protect intermediaries from a wide array of privacy and other state law claims.

And so the idea basically is if you have an objection to a video that's been posted, your principal recourse would be against the person who made and posted the video. Not against the YouTubes and MySpaces of the world who are merely hosting it.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Michael in San Antonia.

As a professional photojournalist I'm well aware that I can be sued for publishing photos that can be embarrassing to private people. I have my professional standards that I vigorously adhere to. I am no paparazzi. Yet it seems the amateurs have no such standards. Do they have the same liabilities as professionals?

Mr. COOK: Well, I think generally they do. And I think that e-mail sort of illustrates the division. He points out that he is quote-unquote "no paparazzi." And so I think that admits of the fact that different parts of even the journalistic community have different standards.

And obviously there are journalists - perhaps some journalists refuse to grant them that name - but there are individuals who for commercial purposes photograph and record celebrities in public places, and it's perfectly legal for them to do so, again, so as long as they're not intruding on a private place or not trying to create some sense of endorsement or sponsorship for a commercial product.

CONAN: And here's another e-mail question. This one from Sam in Wichita, Kansas.

There are many pictures on the Web of females stars in which someone has used a photo editing program to put the star's head on the torso of a nude woman. Is there any legal recourse for this sort of action?

Mr. COOK: Ah, well, that brings us to another interesting exception to what I mentioned is the general rule. And that is what's known as false light. If you modify or change a recording in a way that creates a false impression about what actually happened, that can be illegal in some states in certain circumstances.

And so, you know, there certainly, I think, could be an argument on the part of a celebrity that, hey, wait a minute, that's, you know, that's misleading people regarding the kind of standards I have and maybe even the kind of body I have. So that might be a different story. But that's not my sense of most of what's going on with the YouTubes of the world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're speaking about privacy and the Internet and the phenomenon of embarrassing videos becoming enormous hits on sites like YouTube. Our guests are John Cook, who's a senior writer for Radar magazine, author of "Prisoners of YouTube" in Radar magazine. And Fred Von Lohmann, who's a senior staff attorney with the online civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Fred, I wanted to ask you before we let you go, there is a video of very young children - toddlers - being, I guess, smoking pot in Texas. It was released by Watauga police over the weekend. I think their uncle was enticing them into it.

Can the wide release - presumably this is now on the Internet - I know it's on the Internet - isn't this tainting the jury pool? I mean, they can just put this video out before they try this young man for whatever they're going to try him for?

Mr. FRED VON LOHMANN (Electronic Frontier Foundation): I'm sure his defense attorney will talk about that. I don't think this is fundamentally different than other kinds of media. Obviously there are lots of crimes that already attract a great deal of media attention. This will just be one more channel.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: So I think we can expect those kinds of arguments to crop up. It is interesting, though, the - I don't quite how to put it - but I'm amazed at the number of people who break the law, film themselves doing it, and then post the videos on YouTube. It seems, you know, to prove that old adage that, you know, never underestimate how dumb a criminal can be.

CONAN: Yeah, John Cook, maybe it's the - the most embarrassing moment is the one that got you sent up the river for five to six.

Mr. COOK: Right, right, right. It would be fairly embarrassing if the reason you got sent up the river is that you're that stupid to put it out there in the first place.

CONAN: Fred Von Lohmann, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Fred Von Lohmann, again, a senior staff attorney with the online civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with us from KQUED, our member station in San Francisco.

Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is John. John's with us from Tucson, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I have a quick comment. I've been - I was not in a video, but I had some photos taken and I made a mistake of colossal proportions. And the - it was basically an extramarital affair and some very compromising photos were sent out to all my family members and all my friends on our e-mail list.


JOHN: Yeah. And my wife and I have worked through it. But basically one thing the counselor told us was that listen, yes, this is a nightmare for you right now, but you are just he idiot du jour, so to speak. Where - that people are, you know, you're going to get past this and people are going to forget about it, because, yes, you made the mistake this week but next week people are going to make bigger and dumber mistakes than you.

I mean, of the 900,000 people that have seen that video of that high school kid, 899,000 of them have no clue as to who he is. And I would just think that this - it would all blow over with time. Yes?

CONAN: That was nine -

JOHN: Have a good laugh and move on.

CONAN: That was 900 million, John.

JOHN: Oh, 900 million?

CONAN: Nine hundred million. So if only one percent remember, that's still a lot of people remembering. And John Cook, YouTube and the sites like it - that's the most popular one, that's why we keep referring to it - but this is a form of immortality. Isn't it?

Mr. COOK: Yeah. I mean it's never going to go away, as long as those video are still being hosted on YouTube. And once they're hosted on YouTube, they go - I mean there's a sort of kind of feedback loop that's created among all the sites. So that people post it on YouTube and then other sites take it and it goes all over the place.

Yeah, I mean there - it's on your resume for the rest of your life. And it, you know, in some instances that might not be so bad. But again, in plenty of instances it really could do long term damage to someone's prospects.

Aleksey Vayner is a Yale student who made a ludicrous video resume that is just preposterously self-inflating. And he comes across as an arrogant, foolish, foolish young man. Claims he can bench press 495 pounds and he can serve a tennis ball at a 140 miles an hour. And he just looks - he looks like an idiot.

And you know, that got out there and that's with him for the rest of his life, and you know, he's a young man. And everyone can be foolish when they're young, but people are going to see that when he's 40. And for every job he applies to. I don't know if that's the sort of appropriate punishment for being a foolish young man is to basically brand you for life.

CONAN: John, thanks for the call and we're glad it worked all out for you.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll be back after a short break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: In just a couple of minutes, we'll talk about Ann Coulter, who aimed an F-bomb at a presidential candidate. We'll talk about which word, which candidate, and the fallout. But let's continue our conversation about privacy on the Web. And our guest is John Cook, a senior writer for Radar magazine, author of "Prisoners of YouTube" in Radar magazine.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Bob. Bob's calling us from Long Island.

BOB (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BOB: Yeah, it was a couple of years ago. I'm a police officer. I'm in Suffolk County, Long Island. And a couple of years ago I initiated a traffic stop in a very populated area. There were a lot of civilians around. And it was some young guys with cars driving as recklessly as you could possibly imagine. So once I, you know, got them pulled over and went up to the vehicles, gave them a pretty strong verbal admonition, another police unit rolled up with me, got everybody out, got their information, we started writing them summonses, realized that we were being taped by a video camera, which was some distance away, and you know, kind of ignored it. It happens.

But sometime later I found out that they posted it on the Internet with me verbally admonishing them. And also they made a DVD and they sold that as well.

CONAN: And sold it?

BOB: Yes.

CONAN: So have you seen it on the Web?

BOB: I have seen it on the Web. Yeah.

CONAN: And are you good?

BOB: Yeah. Fortunately, you know, I didn't freak out and do anything extraordinarily foolish. But I guess that they just wanted the reaction that I had given them, and that was why they did what they did in the area that they did it.

Mr. COOK: They were king of trolling for - you mean, trolling for cops, you mean?

BOB: That's exactly right. The vehicles that they were using, they were mostly illegal. Everything about them was illegal. And they engaged in actions that, you know, anybody in their right mind would want them to stop doing before they killed someone. So yeah, they were looking to get a police officer and get them riled up. And you know, I don't think I gave them everything that they wanted, but they certainly got me issuing them an awful lot of summonses.

Mr. COOK: I hope they made enough off the DVD sales to offset the price of their legal defenses.

BOB: Yeah. I hope they did. It's something they apparently do coast-to-coast. You know, it's kind of, I guess a little disturbing, especially if they get the wrong reaction from the wrong person.

CONAN: Yeah. this can go easily astray. You could easily see how that could happen. Bob, thanks very much and better luck next time. Well, at least you look good.

BOB: I looked good, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: Okay. Bye-bye.

BOB: Take care.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Ben on the air. Ben's calling from San Francisco.

BEN (Caller): Yes. Hello.


BEN: Hi. I was - had the bizarre experience (unintelligible) experience, first of all of getting hit by a car as a pedestrian on the sidewalk. And then a few (unintelligible) later having it appear on YouTube, caught by a security camera from a nearby store. And I went through a whole range of sort of emotions about this.

CONAN: I bet...

BEN: Whether it was - sorry, go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to say we're often told that we - you know, it's hard for us to remember the actual moment of impact in accidents, something like that. This must have brought it vividly back to life.

BEN: It certainly did, and I was sort of drawn to it and fascinated and watched it again and again. And at a certain point it stopped being entertaining and started being a little alarming. But it's been interesting, because it's been kind an incredible aid in telling the story. Because I can just refer people to the link and they can go and watch it.

CONAN: I hadn't thought of that. Yeah.

BEN: I've also become very interested in my own reaction of like checking back to see how many people have seen it and being sort of invested in moving up the pop charts, as it were.

Mr. COOK: How many people have seen it?

BOB: Something like 8,500 at this point. So - by YouTube standards it practically doesn't exist, but to me it's fascinating.

CONAN: And like you say, do you have a loop of it now going on your computer so any time anybody wants to see it, you can...

BOB: Well, I do have a link to it on my desktop, although I find myself watching it a little bit less than I did at first. It also just was interesting to me in light of the sense that whatever happens, someone's recording it.


BOB: Of course I thought after a couple of days, well, there's bound to be at least some pictures, which there were, and then it became - I became aware that there was also video.

Mr. COOK: Do you have any idea how that video got from a security camera onto YouTube?

BEN: Yeah. Actually, the storefront that I was sort of knocked into by the car also owned the store two doors down that had a camera looking up the sidewalk. And I actually spoke to them and they were concerned that it was an inappropriate thing to do and I told them it was fine with me, because for this reason of having access to it also and the insurance and legal front was a useful piece of information.

CONAN: Hmm. And was it a spectacular accident? I mean do you go flying head over heels?

BEN: I do, actually. It would be really disturbing if it weren't for the fact that you see me crawl out a few minutes later, so you know - or a few seconds later, so you know that I made it.

CONAN: And as far as you know this is - this video was just put on the - nobody's making any money off of this?

BEN: No. It's just posted on YouTube.

CONAN: Hm-hmm. And have you recovered? Are you OK?

BEN: Yeah. I had a, you know, pretty unpleasant four or five weeks there of recovery. But nothing broken. Nothing serious. Just banged up.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, I'm glad you - glad you made it, Ben. And again, there's that weird sense of yourself as the star of this inadvertent video.

BEN: That's right. Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Huh.

BEN: Very strange.

CONAN: It's interesting, John Cook, that people - these random people that - there's nothing else that distinguishes them except that they were filmed or videoed doing something interesting, remarkable, or stupid.

Mr. COOK: Right. I mean - and the really kind of terrifying thing is that the difference between something that gets seen by 8,500 people or something that gets seen by 900 million people, you don't really know. It's this very kind of ineffable quality, you know?

CONAN: Hm-hmm.

Mr. COOK: And some things just hit. And before you know it...

CONAN: And if we could figure out why, we'd both be rich.

Mr. COOK: Right. Right.

CONAN: Here's a final e-mail - this from Randall in San Antonio. This is all basically America's Funniest with no prize. I feel it's all directly related to reality TV as well.

Why I think these phenomena are so big today goes along with a concept I learned in a computer animation class. In animation you have to go out of your way to pay attention to very small details to make sure it gets past people's fake receptors. These candid moments by default break that barrier and make staged or rehearsed entertainment more faked.

I wonder what you thought of that.

Mr. COOK: I mean I think that's right on. As both the point about reality TV - which kind of, you know, creates this appetite for, you know, cinema verite out there. And then also the, you know, getting past those fake receptors.

I mean I think authenticity of the clip is one of the things that - when I was talking to eBaum's World, for instance, about their experiences - what hits and what doesn't - it's this sense that the person doesn't know they're being watched and that they're not clued into it and they don't know that you're watching them is a big draw for what clips become more popular.

CONAN: John Cook, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Mr. COOK: Thank you. Pleasure being here.

CONAN: John Cook, a senior writer for Radar magazine. He's been talking to us from NPR's studios in New York.

When we come back, well, it's the candidate and the canard.

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