HELLO Government? Opposition? Data Regulator? Who’s up for protecting little me and all my pals from Google’s planned invasion of my privacy? Not that Google themselves want to do what they’re about to do to me. What’s happened is that a judge in New York named Louis Stanton is forcing them to divvy up personal information on anybody who has ever watched a video on YouTube. Anybody. Anywhere. The data will include my e-mail addresses and history of viewing videos on the website, and will go directly to Viacom, the US broadcasting giant that owns channels like Nickolodeon and MTV.
Judge Stanton is the judge in a major copyright case between Viacom and Google. Viacom says the You Tube site encourages copyright infringement. Which it probably does. Take one of the videos watched, so far, by almost 50,000 people, mostly, it can be guessed, Irish. That video is called Cowen’s Downfall. It’s topical. Profane. And very funny, first time around.
Whoever made it took footage from Bernd Eichinger’s 2005 German language film Hitler’s Downfall, based on historian Joachim Fest’s account of the last days inside Hitler’s bunker. The clip shows Hitler learning that the Allies are closing in around him, that on all fronts his armies are being wiped out or — contrary to his instructions — surrendering. The trembling old Fuhrer goes berserk, attacking his own top men in a carpet-chewing diatribe.
The people who turned this into Cowen’s Downfall have simply subtitled the pictures with dialogue. Hitler becomes Brian Cowen, and the terrified generals around him become Micheál Martin, Dick Roche and Brian Lenihan, who have brought him the news of the failure of the yes side in the Lisbon Treaty referendum. On the face of it, and unless the makers paid for the use of the film, this is clearly a breach of copyright. In fact, it’s sort of copy-cat copyright infringement, because several other people in other countries had the same idea, earlier.
But, even if we accept that possibility, it makes no sense for Judge Stanton, in order to facilitate Viacom to make their case, to send them the details of every video I’ve watched on YouTube. It certainly invades my privacy. If, having read this column, you decide you want to watch Cowen’s Downfall, your details will be handed over to Viacom too. The same applies if you watch any of the many videos on this site involving the Taoiseach, whether singing, dancing or getting shirty with Enda Kenny.
I want action taken on this. I want someone to stop Judge Stanton doing what he’s doing.
Now, let’s be clear. Action should be taken on this because — unless someone is watching child pornography or snuff videos which necessarily involve and damage human beings (or, in some cases, result in their deaths) — it’s nobody’s business what any of us watch on our computers, least of all a massive entertainment multinational which can make commercial gains from the information.
Admittedly, the chances are small that they’ll make much of a gain from my information. In fact, that’s the really embarrassing bit: the thought that some nerdy employee of Viacom will know that I visit YouTube regularly to watch videos of kittens falling off surfaces. Pathetic, no? YouTube, every week, has new Cute Cat videos. Film clips, most of them amateur, of cats knocking down pamper-padded toddlers, attacking visiting black bears, chasing their own tails and making mad leaps onto shiny surfaces on which they fail to gain a purchase. Cats falling off surfaces put me in good humour on bad Mondays. They always let on to have done it deliberately and to be not at all bothered by what happened to them.
But it’s not just kittens.
THE nerd in New York will also learn that I need a twice-weekly fix of the Leningrad Cowboys and the Red Army Choir. A few years ago, a Finnish band called the Leningrad Cowboys, who look like a cross between Boy George and the joker in a pack of cards, wearing long, pointed, curled up shoes that have to contravene EU health and safety standards, got together with the Red Army Choir, God knows why, and did a few concerts which created a cult following.
One of their hits is Sweet Home Alabama. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the massed male voices of the Red Army belting out this number. Or seen their bemused faces. Or read the infuriated comments from people who think having anything to do with the Red Army after what they did in the Second World War is a crime against humanity.
I have nothing to fear from Judge Stanton, in the sense that I don’t think he can come after me for watching the Red Army Choir or colluding in the putative breach of copyright represented by the Cowen’s Downfall video. I worry a bit that I might have breached copyright by saving to my hard disc the 45-second video of the baby panda scaring the hell out of its mother by sneezing when she’s in the middle of a snack. (Go look at it, it’s riotous.) I figured that the amateur video camera operator who uploaded it wouldn’t have minded, but I have now deleted it. Just in case.
If the good judge wants to prove that thousands of people watched a particular pirated clip, he can find that out without going into the individual internet accounts of any of the thousands.
If he wants the original makers of the Hitler’s Downfall movie to get royalties, then he should be seeking out the identity of the folks who put the rude subtitles on the clip and uploaded it. It wouldn’t be hard, although this sort of “production” would probably surface elsewhere on the web.
If Stanton or Viacom took that kind of action, producers, writers and actors would probably applaud, since it would stop or at least reduce the pirating of their work.
(Although this is not always a benefit. Having watched the satirical version of the Hitler film, I’m now likely to get it on DVD, because the actor playing Hitler does such a good job. The end result, therefore, of this pirating might be increased sales of the original.)
Clamping down on YouTube could also constrain political attack videos, which are playing an increasing part in elections.
However, online civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes Viacom’s demand for the information as “overbroad”.
Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer for the foundation, says: “The court’s erroneous ruling is a setback to privacy rights,”
The foundation wants Google, which owns YouTube, to challenge the judgment and protect the rights of its users.
I’m with Kurt. If Google could — and did — prevent the US Department of Justice getting this sort of information, they should go into overdrive to prevent a commercial firm accessing it.
The information on my viewing patterns — as I’ve indicated — is embarrassing, rather than shameful or illegal. But it’s my information. And I sure as hell don’t want Viacom to have it.