July 03, 2008

Lesson From Viacom: How to Get YouTube Users to Hate Your Guts

Greetings. When a large corporation shows a lack of respect for the public, it shouldn't be surprised if the public at large shows an increasing disrespect for them. The media giant Viacom seems well on the way toward providing the world with an object lesson of how to take an already bad situation and stab oneself in the heart with it.

By now you've probably heard that Viacom has convinced a judge to order that Google turn over comprehensive records of who watches which videos on YouTube. We're talking tens of terabytes of log data, apparently. Viacom claims that since only "made up" login names are involved, and IP addresses that (at least in the case of dynamic addresses -- statics are another matter) don't directly map to individuals without additional data from ISPs, there are no privacy concerns.

This is bull of course. I assume Viacom has smart enough technical people involved in their ongoing battle with YouTube to know that there are a variety of ways in which those frequently interlinked login names, and even dynamic IP addresses that may be stable for months at a time or longer, can be used to dig down to the point where fully-identified dossiers of viewing habits would be entirely feasible. And video viewing habits are among the most personal of entertainment choices that we make.

Is it likely that this order will be narrowed or otherwise diluted on appeal, and/or that Google and Viacom will agree to additional anonymization of the log data? Yeah, probably one or more of these could happen. Do I wish that Google would keep less log data around that attracts these sorts of obnoxious and dangerous fishing expeditions from various private and governmental entities? Yes, that too, though I recognize the complexity of the issues involved in determining what log data to keep, for how long, and on what basis.

But right now my contempt is reserved for Viacom's modus operandi in this case -- their demanding that all YouTube users' activities be stripped bare, including video viewing that has nothing whatever to do with Viacom programs, so that Viacom can continue their attempt to blame their business model worries on kids uploading clips to YouTube after school.

I frequently note that I have sympathy for intellectual property holders who feel at a loss in the brave new world of the Internet. The times are changing rapidly and many of the old rules -- however much some observers might pine for them -- are becoming ineffective and impossible to effectively transpose into the Internet environment. This is true whether or not Viacom and Google reach a financial settlement, and would still be the case even if YouTube shut down completely. The materials of concern to Viacom would migrate elsewhere on the Net, probably in a form even more difficult for Viacom to categorize.

I'll admit that much of the respect that I ever had for Viacom was seriously depleted several years ago, when one of their shows tried to trick me into appearing in a humilating situation under false pretenses. But hey, that's Hollywood, and nobody would have been affected other than me.

But now Viacom is showing disrespect not for a few individuals, but for vast numbers -- untold millions one assumes -- of innocent YouTube users. That's a poison of a different color all together.

If Viacom's goal is to create legions of otherwise law-abiding consumers who might now feel some satisfaction out of pirating Viacom shows -- just to spite Viacom's intrusive actions in this case ... well ... judging from the scuttlebutt around the Net, Viacom may have succeeded in a way that could haunt them for quite some time to come.


Posted by Lauren at July 3, 2008 05:59 PM | Permalink
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