Google and Viacom: a privacy “Exxon Valdez?”

Might the court order that Google hand over YouTube viewer records become, as Ed Felten and others termed a few years back, an “Exxon Valdez” of privacy that makes informational privacy a national priority?  Unfortunately, I suspect not.  If the parties reach an agreement to anonymize the data and keep it out of the direct hands of Viacom, then public anger may subside.

What would be enough to mobilize the public?  In 2006, Ed Felten suggested that a privacy Exxon Valdez “will have to be a leak of information so sensitive as to be life-shattering.”  But how sensitive is our viewing of, for example, Harry Potter Puppet Pals?  It’s creepy to think of lawyers having access to it, but is it life-shattering?  Nonetheless, it appears that the public, companies, and Congress are becoming more attuned to privacy matters.  Just last week, Google and Yahoo both recently endorsed the idea of privacy legislation before the Senate Commerce Committee.

In the meantime, what the the litigants doing?  The NYTimes BITS blog notes, “A week after Google and Viacom both said they hoped to agree to make YouTube viewing data anonymous before Google hands the information to Viacom, no agreement has been signed.”  (Emphasis added.)  The parties blame each another.  A Google lawyer says: “If Viacom refuses to allow us to anonymize viewing history, we will seek review by the court.”  A Viacom spokesperson counters:

Viacom suggested the initiative to anonymize the data, and we have been prepared to accept anonymous information since day one.  We hope that Google will turn its focus back to anonymizing the data they are required to deliver, and spend less time making statements about why they won’t get it done.

It’s not especially clear what the parties are doing or how things might be resolved.  As I blogged recently, an earlier Times article initially stated that the parties were “working to protect the anonymity of YouTube viewers.”  (Emphasis added.)  A few hours later, the Times article was edited to say that the parties were “hoping to come up with a way to protect the anonymity of YouTube viewers.”  (Emphasis added.)  Apparently the parties’ resolve was tempered from “work” to mere “hope.”  The parties need to do better, especially Google, which collected and retained all the information.

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