Q'n'A: Are Youtube users are royally screwed?

Summary:I've been reading the headlines today, and the main headlines on most of the top technology websites are about the YouTube/Google/Viacom saga. I'd like to call this: Youglecomgate, a potentially volatile situation hovers over the midst of everyone who has been on YouTube ever, so that's probably the majority of the globe.

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I've been reading the headlines today, and the main headlines on most of the top technology websites are about the YouTube/Google/Viacom saga. I'd like to call this: Youglecomgate, a potentially volatile situation hovers over the midst of everyone who has been on YouTube ever, so that's probably the majority of the globe.

Not only that, students often use YouTube as a method of studying - using the facilities to learn, find information, but also unwind and have fun by watching stupid things. I'd like to run this through as a simple Q'n'A so hopefully people won't be as confused as I was when I first read this.

What does Google have to do with YouTube? Google bought YouTube without shedding a single note of cash, cheque or bank transfer in November 2006 by essentially buying over 3.2 million shares, as I understand it, to give it overall majority of the company. Once a company loses over 50% of the shares, the other shareholders can come together and form one company, thus out numbering the original company and taking majority of the company (thanks Dad for clueing me up on this one, I think I got it right) - so because Google owns YouTube, it very much makes it Google's problem.

Why is Google/YouTube being sued? Because Viacom, the company which brings you MTV, Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks studios, found its own copyrighted material on YouTube which other people had uploaded. Viacom own the rights to everything they and the companies it owns makes, and they end up losing money if other people can view it for free on YouTube.

Why don't Viacom sue the uploaders? There's far too many people to sue and it'd be too difficult to sue everyone. According to the BBC, Viacom found 160,000 copyrighted clips on YouTube which had been viewed over 1.5 billon times. Had this not happened, Viacom would have made a huge amount of profit, but have now obviously lost out.

In this case, they are suing Google because Viacom believe they are responsible for what is hosted on their own site. It's corporate responsibility all over again; if they can't control what is on their own servers, they should be held accountable, and this is exactly what's happening.

How does this effect affect me? This is the tricky bit. The US courts have asked (told) Google they must present every single record, of every single video ever watched. As you can imagine, this is a huge amount of data, but it also includes the usernames of those who watched the videos, the IP addresses which is your unique identifier on the Internet, as well as other information.

Those who have watched YouTube, are we royally screwed? There is very little risk, that I can see (I've researched this one), of repercussions towards YouTube users. For the time being, even though our identifiable information is being given away, there is little-to-none chance that legal action will be brought against users. Having said that, there is a chance it could happen. If Viacom wants to take Google to the cleaners, I dread to think what else could happen.

Are they allowed to do this? Yes. It's not fair, but even state and country boundaries don't count in this instance. I'm just as guilty as anyone else, watching Family Guy when I was bored at college. When you watch something on YouTube, you agree to Google's privacy policy, which states:

We use both your personally identifiable information and certain non-personally-identifiable information (such as anonymous user usage data, cookies, IP addresses, browser type, clickstream data, etc.) to improve the quality and design of the YouTube Sites and to create new features, promotions, functionality, and services by storing, tracking, analyzing, and processing user preferences and trends, as well as user activity and communications.

This is the information, all 12 terabytes of it (about 3 million MP3's), which will be presented to the courts. I presume Viacom wants it to compare it with other non-copyrighted videos - by proving that Viacom's copyrighted material is more popular, this would effectively put the nail in YouTube's coffin.

Surely this is a huge privacy concern? I am worried about this. I've seen quite a lot of things happen in my 20 year life - September 11th, the London bombings, the biggest loss of Government data ever, the biggest IP address change in history (IPv6), but this is something else completely. This really does worry me quite a lot.

Up to, or maybe just surpassing a billion people's identifiable information will be given away. This as far as I can tell, is the biggest "breach" of data protection, even though ironically it was ordered by a court.

People are talking about YouTube's source code... what? Viacom wanted access to the "brain" of YouTube, to actually look at the working mechanism behind how the site works. Google said that it's a trade secret, and shouldn't be given to anybody; the US court upheld this and agreed.

How have others reacted to this? The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which sees about protecting people's rights on the Internet, said to the BBC:

"The Court's erroneous ruling is a set-back to privacy rights, and will allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube. We urge Viacom to back off this overbroad request and Google to take all steps necessary to challenge this order and protect the rights of its users."

They also stated quite strongly that this was a breach of the Video Privacy Protection Act, something I don't believe we have here in the UK. Considering the EFF have, and will continue, to decide to come up against huge corporations or even Governments, they're not really a force to be reckoned with.

What does Viacom get out of this? They are hoping to get, according to Wired, over $1 billion in damages from Google/YouTube, through allowing users to upload Viacom's copyrighted material to their servers. I guess that through the user logs they are getting, they may be able to come up with a more accurate figure for damages. Even though I don't agree with it, if this is the case then to some extent they're being fair at least.

What happens to YouTube after this? Considering a ruling hasn't been given yet, Google and YouTube may come off without a single scrape. However, there are many possible outcomes from this. YouTube could get shut down, Google could get fined to the nth degree, or maybe Google will get sued and it have a very minimal effect on YouTube and it carries on as it has done.

When will we know what happens? I don't know, but these things can take weeks, months, even years to sort out. This all started in March 2007, and it's nearly a year and a half since, so we could be looking at a bit of a wait yet.

Unlike the UK courts, you can read everything in this report, signed by the District Judge himself.

Topics: Browser, Google, Networking, Social Enterprise

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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