Rory Cellan-Jones

Watching you, watching YouTube

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 4 Jul 08, 11:03 GMT

I can't be the only one who's been thinking rather nervously about exactly what they've been looking at on YouTube over the years now that Viacom's lawyers are about to get their hands on our viewing habits.

YouTubeLuckily, I don't think there's much that is too embarrassing in my case, apart from a run of dodgy videos of even dodgier 1970s bands.

But for everyone who leaves a data trail across the internet this is a wake-up call. When you do just about anything online - from a Google search to a Facebook message to a spot of file-sharing - you are leaving traces of yourself that you might prefer to stay private.

For all the talk of a surveillance society, the analogue world can still be a more private place - if I choose to watch conventional television, stick a friend's copied CD in the player, or post a letter, nobody is likely to know.

Of course, there's no real need to worry about your digital footprint. The big corporations that hold our data on their servers have promised us all that it is safe in their hands. Not a chance that Tesco will hand over your Clubcard data to outsiders for marketing purposes, or that your ISP will let anyone else know that you've been uploading your music collection onto Limewire. No way will Ebay reveal that you spend most of your time at work just checking out whether you're still the highest bidder for that (fake) Rolex.

But the YouTube case seems to show that, despite those promises, we have no real control over our data once it is lodged on a corporate server. Every detail of my viewing activities over the years - the times I've watched videos in the office, the clips of colleagues making idiots of themselves, the unauthorised clip of goals from a Premier League game - is contained in those YouTube logs.

All to be handed over to Viacom's lawyers on a few "over-the-shelf four-terabyte hard drives", according to the New York judge who made the ruling. I may protest that I am a British citizen and that the judge has no business giving some foreign company a window on my world. No use - my data is in California, and it belongs to Google, not me.

The other troubling aspect about this case was that it was only the blogs that seemed to understand the significance of the ruling when it emerged on Wednesday night. Much of the mainstream media ignored it at first, seeming to regard it as a victory for Google, because the judge said the search firm didn't have to reveal its source code.

Great news for Google - but the other part of the ruling was deeply worrying for its users, as the technology bloggers were quick to spot. Indeed Google's statement began by welcoming its victory on the code issue, before moving on to the little problem of the YouTube logs.

Now I've never worried too much about the threat to my privacy. I'm relaxed about appearing on CCTV, happy enough for my data to be used for marketing purposes, as long as I've ticked a box, and have never really cared that Google knows about every search I've done for the last 18 months. But suddenly I'm feeling a little less confident. How about you?


  • Comment number 1.

    What should I be worried about, that I might have watched something illegal? And I don't mean copyrighted material, I mean seriously illegal and taken to the cop shop if caught?

    If that's the case then I hope some people do get caught! Especially people that may have uploaded said illegal material.

    Yes, your privacy is important and yes it is a bit unnerving that your data can be passed on like this, but I already know I leave a data trail.

    I think the biggest crime I have committed on youtube is getting excited by watching the skills of Georgios Samaras when he signed for Man City, only to see him be a big failure.

    Repeat after me, 'youtube is not a good scouting system'!!

    Now where's that video of Jo, he looked good on youtube.......doh....

  • Comment number 2.

    Google has a UK presence. It is important that they obey the laws of the UK - including the Data Protection act.

    If you care about your privacy, and you don't want your information being disseminated in this way - I recommend asking the Information Commissioner to get involved.

    Explain your fears here

    Just because you've done nothing wrong - doesn't mean that Viacom will treat you fairly.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm reminded of the Pratchett quote: "The axiom 'Honest men have nothing to fear from the police' is currently under review by the Axioms Appeal Board". Combine this story with Street View and Google's fresh sheen of goodness starts to peel.

  • Comment number 4.

    One problem with it is that the internet is not like a public place, where I would have no trouble being recorded on CCTV. Blogs and forums may be 'public places', but my email and bank statements are not!

    It IS an invasion of privacy, perhaps not - in this case - a particularly bad one, but in many ways it is the principal that is at stake here. If such a court order is allowed it could signal a slow decent into more sinister territory.

    George Orwell's 1984 suddenly doesn't look so far fetched now...

  • Comment number 5.


    So you think that we'll go from a law suit about copyright infringement to burning books because of this do you?

    Give me a break.

    This will not lead to anyone being able to request your bank statements, or such like at will.

    People need to get a grip and stop being so dramatic.

    Youtube and the like are entertainment devices, if you use them be aware that your data is open to much worse than this, as it is not a secure site in the first place. Your bank however is secure.

    I bet you don't like your shopping habits being shown on gmail, or amazon either do you? 'oh no, I'm being spied on!'.

  • Comment number 6.

    When you're watching these 1970s bands, are you paying royalties to them or is YouTube?

  • Comment number 7.

    To paraphrase 4chan - "some of those ip's are my proxies!"

    In response to list of user data traced IP addresses

  • Comment number 8.

    The interesting thing about this ruling to me is that the US Government were denied a similar request a couple of years ago.

    Also, why does Viacom need individual user information? Surely all they need is the overall trends of usage, both in terms of uploading and viewing.

    It will be interesting to see how America reacts to Viacom's demand's as most Americans use YouTube and there are already calls to boycott Viacom's properties.

  • Comment number 9.


    I think you've overlooked a rather fundamental and significant problem.

    What if you'd watched something that is perfectly legal in your country of residence, but illegal in the country whose judges just ordered your data released?

    The next time you go on holiday or business you might find yourself arrested at immigration for a "crime" you never actually committed.

    But.. well, actually you did commit it, they have the logs to prove it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Although this is clearly a stupid decision made by an ignorant judge, I doubt the implications for this are as far reaching as many people are making out,

    I would be intrigued to see how viacom would go about proving anyone who has watched a video on youtube, did so with intent, the urls are ambiguous to say the least, if you are sent a link you have no way of knowing what awaits on the other end other than the fact it's on youtube, uploading of videos is clearly traceable and obvious as it requires an account, and intent.

    The fact I simply clicked on a link does NOT show any intent on my behalf to view anything illegal, it shows I (or, someone who shared my IP address at the time) CLICKED A LINK, and the page loaded,

    If there is information within these records like search history, and which accounts have searched for what, THEN that could prove someones intent to unauthorisedly view their oh-so-precious copyrighted ker-rap, but clicking on a link . . .

    I think it's time someone rickrolls that judge

  • Comment number 11.

    I think the interesting part of the story is why do Viacom need user ids and IP addresses? They have said themselves that they are not after the YouTube users themselves and the case is against Google anyway.
    When the prosecutors ask for discovery material they always go over board and ask for everything they can. It is for the courts to decide what is reasonable and yet the judge says that the privacy concerns are "speculative".
    The point is that Viacom do not need 100s millions of IP addresses and user name, in fact they are irrelevant to the case. All this data should be anonymised.

  • Comment number 12.

    And good luck with finding out who all those IPs belonged to

    Dear Virgin media, Please find attached a 1 terabyte spreadsheet containing details of every IP address that accessed a YouTube video ever,

    Would you kindly look each one up for us and give us the details for each one please.

  • Comment number 13.

    Whoops, that should be 'every one or YOUR IP addresses'

  • Comment number 14.

    Xzanron ;

    Can you give me an example of something that I could watch on youtube that is legal in the UK but not in the US?

    Or indeed any country to the US?

  • Comment number 15.

    For me the question has more to with data rights. I have never uploaded anything to youtube, and have no worries about what any possible history may show. What I do object to is the data being handed over to a third party without my consent. Just because I leave a digital trail when using the net doesn't mean that people not associated with any site that I visit or use has a right to that data.

    The internet is at a stage where it is having to define its form and function more so than at any other point in its history. Companies all want their interests and rights protected, which is fair enough, but this shouldn't come at the cost of the end user. At its heart the internet is a global information sharing and communication tool. The more rights large corporations regarding access to users data, the further we will move away from this and toward an extension of the media and entertainment industry. Whether Viacom has a right to protect its interests the US courts should never have allowed this. What happens now if, once their case with Google is resolved, Viacom starts using this information to pursue YouTube users that they feel have gained unauthorised access, to their material?

    Added to this that any data that is held on an American server can be requestioned by the US government at any time (if you have a google, hotmail or yahoo email account this is worth thinking about) it all adds up to a situation where you are constantly being monitored by a range organisation protecting third party interests, in a medium that is meant to be about freedom of information (in a moral not financial capacity).

    Regardless of

  • Comment number 16.

    I think this case highlights that there are important lessons to be learned by all parties, not least, the users. It’s a poignant reminder for Google that storing information about its users for their own ends leaves themselves and those users at risk of forced disclosure of that information to third parties. As for Viacom, it pays to keep their dubious and draconian business practices in the public limelight; Lest we forget, at our own peril.

    Lastly there are the millions of Internet users who surf the web each day. For those who are horrified at the thought of their browsing habits suddenly becoming the property of Viacom, there are ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Spend a few hours researching services such as Tor and discover that privacy isn't an expensive commodity.

  • Comment number 17.

    I don't think that Viacom are that interested in the individual eye balls. It's the evidence they need to extract some serious money from Google.

    Viacom have probably benefited from all the free promos on YouTube, in terms of extra DVD sales generated by people who liked the material enough to want to view it in broadcast quality.

    For those viewers that didn't it wasn't lost revenue anyway.

    Rather like patent trolling, suing large companies for copyright infringement is another way to make money from the net.

  • Comment number 18.

    Personally there is nothing that I am worried about Viacom finding out about me. I am more than sure that any copyrighted material I may have viewed will make me just one of hundreds if not thousands.
    The worrying thing is, as several have stated and several others seem to have ignored in favour of that very very tired and downright useless line "if you have done nothing wrong", that this is more about the beginning, setting precedent, than the actual action itself. The next time a company decides that they are loosing cash and want someone to pay how much easier will it be for them to do as Viacom have or even worse go one step further?
    They may not and this might just be a blip but i think history has taught us that you should never just accept things like this at face value as they will more often than not come back to bite you. Ask Neville Chamberlain.

  • Comment number 19.

    Well, Rory, I'd never have placed you as a Jimmy Webb / Glen Campbell fan. I will henceforth see you in a new and even more golden light.

  • Comment number 20.

    I'm a bit bemused with this. I watch a lot of old music clips and old film and tv trailers on YouTube which I thoroughly enjoy. So how am I breaking any law? Even big companies like the BBC and Sony upload lots of clips for us to enjoy. Think this Viacom company need to pull their head out of their arse as I can imagine they're certainly on their own with this one. No one is going to thank them for it. And if anyone tries stopping me from viewing music and film clips posted by others then they're in for one almighty punch up. I don't view or want to view illegal activities or explicit pornography and I don't steal music files either. I have a playlist I have saved on YouTube. For me to watch not to sell or fileshare or whatever. Viacom can and take a run and jump for all I care. Killjoys! Hope YouTube win!

  • Comment number 21.

    Honestly I'm annoyed they're getting peoples isp addresses as well as their user info. Honestly I don't see why they can't just ask for a huge list of everything on youtube with the play counts by it. It's not like they actually need to know where people are too see if some random episode of cribs that shouldn't be there has been viewed in the US or France or where the heck ever. They don't really need the user names of the viewers just the uploaders surely? How much stuff has many thousands+ of views? Are they going to stick a law suit on every one of those 1000s people?
    And even if I had viewed copyrighted material exactly how are they going to prove it was knowingly?
    And I know of many people that use youtube to view interviews and what not that were on the MTV website (which was free in the first place) or where ever, if mtv themselves would lift the restrictions on their own videos people wouldn't need to rip them off and bung them on youtube.
    IDK maybe I'm just not one for watching the illegal stuff.
    And isn't it a breaking of the UK Data Protection Act too? Google is only supposed to let their data be used for it's purpose outside of that isn't it illegal? They should abide by the laws of all countries not just the one they happen to be being sued in.

  • Comment number 22.

    I will admit to seeing illegal works that breach copyrights (Including some fan music videos which breach the rights of both the musicians and the actors/crew from the film/tv show sampled). That said,There should be a way where someone who feels guilty can pay to company a small amount anonymously to both assuage consciences and give the company some money back for things they enjoy.
    (Incidentally, a number of the fan videos led me to buy CDs of the artists who did the music- and I already plan to buy DVDs of the one show whose fan videos I regularly watch...)

  • Comment number 23.

  • Comment number 24.

    As I have only watched a couple of crazy Lego things on you tube I'm not concerned for myself but what about others who may have used my machine? I have no idea what other people watch on my house machine. Who is responsible? Me I suppose.

  • Comment number 25.

    So whats the big deal with watching video clips and why would Viacom ever be interested in anyone doing so. Its the people uploading the videos that they're interested in surely.

  • Comment number 26.

    If I was sending this data to Viacom I would fulfill the ruling but send the data on 2 million 5 1/4 inch floppy discs using ms/dos 3.1 or better yet on paper hard copy.

    that would fix their wagon..

  • Comment number 27.

    The course of action proposed by the US court is far in excess of what is required.

    Proving or disproving the point contested by Viacom and the Premier League - that YouTube has offered (possibly without licence from the content owner to do so) content to the public that is owned by these two organisations does not require access to an individual's viewing habits. This evidence is found by demonstrating the correspondence between what is offered by YouTube and what is 'owned' by these organisations.

    YouTube's offer to provide details describing content that has been removed by them would support an argument that as a service provider YouTube are acting correctly in protecting the interests of the content licence owners - where ownership is known to them.

    It is the uploaders not the viewers that are at fault. If you do not own the right to distribute the content then don't upload it. Simple.

    Perhaps a basic licencing mechanism for a user to recieve (internet) content would be more apt - or perhaps this is implicit in our ISP contract/fee?

    From an individual's perspective, the course of action prescribed in TerenceEden's comment (below) appears a sensible course of action.

  • Comment number 28.

    @Paulmackenzie: "Perhaps a basic licencing mechanism for a user to recieve (internet) content would be more apt - or perhaps this is implicit in our ISP contract/fee?"

    great! then I can claim royalities on every website I've ever made. Every photo uploaded to FlickR. Every blog posting. Every forum reply. bring it on ;)

  • Comment number 29.

    This ruling is worrying because it is a Slippery slope. It seems little by little our privacy is being erroded. However its not all doom and gloom. In the UK we have the Data Protection Act (which saves a lot of people more than they realise). I work in the network provision game and we get regular threats saying.... "blah blah IP Address X.X.X.X download blah movie. We demand you give us this user's name and address..... etc etc" We politely tell the US company where they can stick it as the Data Protection Act makes it illegal for us to hand out such information. Then we temporarily disconnect the user until the promise they won't do it again. :-)

    Even so we should be careful. The UK government is quite happy to abuse "terrorism laws" to exridite UK citizens to the US. Ask the Natwest Three.

  • Comment number 30.

    Those who worry about bureaucrats or Big Businesses interfering in their privacy are missing the point: it's the street-corner nosey parkers who are the real problem. Try living your life publically - not by being Madonna, just by not hiding things - and see how long you can go before someone takes the opportunity to stnd in judgement. Michael Caine it was who left the UK after an electrician visiting his house to put up a light fitting declared that "nobody should live like this": what our surfing histories allow isn't that Viacom should stand in judgement (though read "Super Crunchers" by Ian Ayers for a new view!), but that busybodies - be they little old ladies or sneery nerds - get to draw damaging conclusions.

  • Comment number 31.

    The current IP Version 4 (IPV4) setup means there are more people and devices than there are IP Addresses. Because of this ISP's use pools of IP Addresses and you get a different one assigned each time you log in. Hence Viacom would need the assistance of an ISP to track you down (oh and a lot of resource).

    BUT IP Version 6 (IPV6) is on the horizon, and it has enough IP Addresses to give not only every person on the planet but possibly every organism an IP address of its own.

    This hails the advent of personal IP addresses traceable to an individual, not just an ISP.

    Am I being paranoid? .....

  • Comment number 32.

    I personnally am not too worried about my data trail, but I know many people who are!
    And despite me not being worried I have a point to make about the internet, ITS ENTIRLY OPEN!!!
    I think it is rediculus that people can and will be scrutinised by companies about what they do in their free time, on the internet!
    I think this decision will just push more people to use software to mask their IP addresses and cut down on data trails, this software will become more openly available and it will lead to a sharp rise in real internet crime, not just someone watching a few naughty videos!

  • Comment number 33.

    referring to your '(ex-) colleagues making idiots of themselves' with helpful link... do i sense some bad blood?

  • Comment number 34.


    An example of something this is legal in the country where I am now and is illegal, in the USA, UK and many other countries. "Watching copyrighted material". I live in Cambodia which today has never passed any IP laws. So there is no copyright infringement. I can buy any CD/DVD of computer programs or Films or music and in this country I am not breaking the law.

    So all who what to break copyright come here, but what ever you do don't take it with you cause if you do then you will certainly be breaking the law of that country.

  • Comment number 35.

    I think people have missed the point. The folly is not with Viacom for wanting the information. The folly is with Google for storing the information in the first place.


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