Everybody's got something to hide

Viacom lusts after Google's YouTube logs. So why give our personal info to Web sites in the first place?

So a New York judge last week ordered Google to hand over 12 terabytes of YouTube user information to Viacom. Yes, we know what you watched last summer, or at least Viacom's attorneys soon will.

The owners of Comedy Central and VH1 are attempting to prove that more people watch pirated clips of John Stewart and Behind The Music than, say, the Wii Fit Girl or that goofy guy dancing his way around the globe (video). In the aggregate, maybe more people are watching clips of The Daily Show on them Internets. But a viral video will still draw more eyeballs than any single thing the mainstream media can belch out, regardless of how clever Stewart is. Partly that's because most people who'd want to see it already have, for free, over the airwaves. (Which makes YouTube's harm to Viacom exactly bupkis.)

Trouble is, our video viewing habits are supposed to be protected by federal law. After a reporter went dumpster diving on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 and came up with Blockbuster rental receipts (he was looking for porn, but mostly he found Hitchcock and Fellini) Congress passed a US law explicitly protecting the privacy of movie rentals. The judge in the Viacom case, Louis Stanton, decided that watching a YouTube video somehow qualified as less worthy of protection than Bork's VCR. (I'd like to see what's in Stanton's NetFlix queue -- or maybe he's a SugarDVD fan.)

The usual answer from people who claim to be perfectly happy having attorneys rooting around their private lives like squirrels in a nuthouse is that they've "got nothing to hide." To which I usually say, "terrific, now drop your pants." Everybody's got something to hide, even if it probably isn't what they watched on YouTube. Even the Transparent Society geeks who believe the path to total freedom lies in having everything exposed in plain view still wear clothes and keep their Social Security cards in their pockets.

The right to keep one's thoughts and interests private -- and by extension, things that indicate thoughts and interests, like books and movies -- is one of the keys to democracy. Nobody can demand to know what's going on between my ears (and trust me, you don't want to know). That's the way I like it.

The real problem here is the obsession with data collection that infects Google, Microsoft, and other major service providers. If there's a reason to keep a running record of every YouTube video I've watched or Web search I've run over the last 18 months, I can't see it -- and Google has done a p*** poor job of explaining why they need it. Because if a record is out there, you're almost guaranteed that some day a lawyer with a subpoena (or a spook with an electronic back door) may come looking for it. And there will be nothing you can do about it.

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Robert X. Cringely

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