When it comes to privacy, should I be more afraid of Google and YouTube, or Viacom?

Last week, privacy advocates went into a tizzy over the ruling by a New York judge that YouTube must turn over all its data about which videos that its users watch to Viacom. The latter is suing YouTube, which is owned by Google, over copyright infringement.

It’s a reminder, of course, of what lies at the heart of the Internet. In essence, companies like Google have turned the Internet into a vast collector of personal data which they then use to figure out how to get us to watch, read or buy more stuff. The amount of knowledge a company like Google has about your personal Web surfing habits would likely boggle your mind if you knew the full extent of it.

But the outcry left me wondering just what everyone was so worked up about.

Let’s assume one company turns this data over to another company. Now there’s two sets of data. But why should I assume that Google is going to use this for more benign purposes than Viacom? I don’t. That’s not meant to accuse Google of doing anything underhanded. They’re just doing what they do as a business. By using their search engine or watching videos on YouTube, we’re essentially waiving some of our privacy, and hoping that Google can be trusted with it.

It’s understandable that at first blush, the story written by the AP last week can seem a bit unsettling:

“Dismissing privacy concerns, a federal judge overseeing a $1 billion copyright-infringement lawsuit against YouTube has ordered the popular online video-sharing service to disclose who watches which video clips and when.U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton authorized full access to the YouTube logs after Viacom Inc. and other copyright holders argued that they needed the data to show whether their copyright-protected videos are more heavily watched than amateur clips.

The data would not be publicly released but disclosed only to the plaintiffs, and it would include less specific identifiers than a user’s real name or e-mail address.

Lawyers for Google Inc., which owns YouTube, said producing 12 terabytes of data—equivalent to the text of roughly 12 million books—would be expensive, time-consuming and a threat to users’ privacy”

In that last paragraph, Google is essentially saying it can be trusted, but Viacom can’t. But again, based on what?

I’ll admit that I’m not obsessed by the privacy question. Still, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact that someone at Viacom is suddenly peering into the deep recess of YouTube habits.

And by the way, what exactly would that analysis find?

Mostly, I tend to watch YouTube with my kids, who are 5.5 and 3. We don’t let them watch much TV. But I’m okay with them watching short video clips, including the ones I upload of our family. Boring stuff. YouTube is great because for every random thought that pops into my kids’ head — “Daddy, I want to watch a video of a fire rescue boat!” — there is probably a video of it on YouTube.

They’d also discover that, via my kids, we tend to watch a lot videos about:

  • Tractors and other construction machines
  • Music videos by Justin Roberts, a great pop musician who writes songs about childhood
  • Space Shuttle launches and other rocket-related videos
  • Fire fighters
  • The Back Dorm Boys of China

Our Justin Roberts’ favorite:

 

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