When Google’s the library, who’s the librarian?

PaidContent says it’s a false alarm that Viacom will get personally identifiable information on our video viewing from YouTube and Google as part of its self-destructive lawsuit. Nonetheless, the episode has sparked the question I pose in the headline: When Google becomes our library, who acts as the librarian to protect our privacy as a matter of principle?

And what is the principle? Any site with content — Google, Amazon, a newspaper, a blog, an ISP — is now the moral equivalent of a library or bookstore, two institutions that try hard not to hand over information on what content we seek and consume arguing that that would violate our First Amendment rights. The controversy in the telco immunity legislation is that those searches were made without warrants. In this case, there is a warrant. When I ran sites, we got subpoenas all the time and handed over IP addresses when ordered; that was company policy. I always found it troubling and as a result ordered that we would change our data retention policy and get rid of IP addresses as soon as possible. Should Google and other sites erase IPs and rely only on cookies without personally identifiable information?

I say all this more as a question than as a statement. Viacom could have just as easily gotten our addresses and account names. Even as blind as Viacom is to the new reality — the suit itself is the proof of that — they realized, as PaidContent points out, that getting our personal viewing information would have turned them into a corporate peeping-tom pariah. So what is the principle and the law in your view? What should they be? And what are the practical tactics we should expect content sites to take? Should I be erasing my logs? Is that pointless because Google Analytics has them too? What gives?

: LATER: Bob Wyman adds in the comments:

PaidContent was spun… They are wrong. Viacom claims that they will receive no “personally identifiable information” because they managed to get the judge to accept that “login id is a pseudonym … which … ‘cannot identify specific individuals’” (See pages 13-14 of the ruling). The judge granted Viacom’s demand to receive “all data from the Logging database” — including login id.

I don’t know about you, but I sure think my Google “login id” does a pretty good job of identifying me…

:UPDATE: the Journal has a good July 4 story outlining how Google is trying to get Viacom to agree to scrubbing personally identifiable information out of the data because of the uproar over it.

We need a principle as we have one governing the ethics and if possible the behavior of bookstores and libraries. Google is the library.

  • http://www.wyman.us/ Bob Wyman

    PaidContent was spun… They are wrong. Viacom claims that they will receive no “personally identifiable information” because they managed to get the judge to accept that “login id is a pseudonym … which … ‘cannot identify specific individuals’” (See pages 13-14 of the ruling). The judge granted Viacom’s demand to receive “all data from the Logging database” — including login id.

    I don’t know about you, but I sure think my Google “login id” does a pretty good job of identifying me…

    Would a “real” journalist have checked the facts here?

    bob wyman

  • http://www.wyman.us/ Bob Wyman

    You ask “What should the law be?”
    The law should concern itself with the nature of the data and the user’s expectations of privacy rather than the specific location of the data. Thus, data about my private actions should be treated the same whether it is stored under the mattress of my bed in a sealed diary or on a service provider’s servers.

    The test here should be one of equivalence… One way to find out who has watched which videos is to get the data from the service provider. This is what Viacom is trying to do. An equivalent method would be to search the homes and computers of all the millions of people who might have watched videos. Clearly, the first method is “cheaper”, however, the second method, a mass search of every home in the USA, would be be denied as an invasion of privacy even if it could be done at reasonable cost. Since the information produced using the two methods is identical, the first method should meet the same requirements as the second. The two methods of information retrieval have the same end result and should be judged the same.

    As the internet becomes a more important part of our lives, that space which is our “private home” should be seen to extend to include the private storage places that we establish on the Internet. There is nothing about them other than location that distinguishes them from similar storage places in our own homes. In fact, in many cases, we’re now seeing that private local storage is “backed up” to remote locations for safety. The use of such remote storage cannot be seen to reduce our ownership of or rights concerning our data and data about us.

    The law or constitution doesn’t need to change here. Rather, what needs to change is how we interpret the concept of “home” “private space”, etc. These concepts need to extend to reflect that our “homes” are no longer contiguous spaces — they extend across the network to include virtual spaces on remote servers.

    bob wyman

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  • alexschmidt

    jeff i thought you voluntarily included your IP on all blog comments, etc. is there some friction here between the transparency you seem to value so deeply on the Internet, and corporate paranoia when your identity is not used in a way that’s to your liking?

  • James

    The Video Privacy Protection Act should be extended to cover online histories, including viewing and searching histories.

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  • http://vinylart.blogspot.com Daniel Edlen

    When you check out a book at the library, there’s a record tied to your library card. Are there any laws regarding access to that information? Can the feds find out you checked out Catcher in the Rye and Bombs for Dummies?

    Peace.

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