Andrew Walmsley on digital: It's not paranoia they're out to get me

There are, I am assured, people who walk around wearing tinfoil on their heads because they are convinced that aliens/the CIA/the government are beaming thoughts into their skulls.

They are, of course, barking mad. As, we usually assume, are all the privacy activists who go on about CCTV, Oyster Cards and internet cookies.

Two years ago, I wrote about AOL, which had, in a rather spectacular goof, released data on the search behaviour of thousands of users. It claimed the data was anonymous, but it took just a day for an enterprising newspaper to track down one searcher's identity from the leaked information.

It turned out few people were aware of the extent to which their personal data is routinely collected. Most search engines, for instance, keep a history of every search, with Google deleting records only after 18 months. Websites keep logfiles, perhaps permanently, of pages visited, forms filled in and images viewed. It is the latter practice that has now got Google into trouble.

Media group Viacom, which has been in a long-term dispute with YouTube over alleged copyright infringement, recently persuaded a New York judge that Google - which owns the video-sharing site - should hand over the personal information of everyone who has ever used it. This data includes unique internet addresses, email accounts and a history of all videos watched.

The judge, Louis Stanton, dismissed privacy concerns as 'speculative'. But the consequence of this is that users of YouTube, which serves more than 2.5bn videos a month to 70m users in the US alone, are now exposed. Their personal media consumption is something for Viacom to pore over, regardless of whether or not they have been viewing content for which Viacom owns the copyright. This would never have happened if Google had not collected the data in the first place.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, a related story has resurfaced. In February, I wrote about the efforts of the BPI - the trade body of the record industry - to get ISPs to spy on their customers on its behalf, punish them for infringing the law, and provide evidence to music labels.

The BPI got quite upset about this, calling my observations 'quite wrong', and claiming I had recycled the information from The Times. The group wanted to set the record straight (no pun intended) as it expected this story to run and run. I had in fact got the information from the BPI's website.

I, quite wrongly, expected this story to go away. It seemed to me that no company would be so daft as to think it could build a business by suing its customers. Last week, however, Virgin Media started sending out letters to customers identified by the BPI, telling them that filesharing copyrighted files is illegal.

Virgin's view is that, rather than barring people's internet accounts, it will educate them about their actions. But the BPI also sent out letters, which contained the threatening line: 'We don't want you to face legal action, or risk losing your internet service.'

Although I don't download music, I do expect my ISP to guard my privacy. Moreover, I don't think it's any of its business what I do with my internet connection. Just as I don't expect the Post Office to read my mail or BT to listen to my phone calls, I don't expect an ISP to snoop on my web behaviour without a court order compelling it to.

Carphone Warehouse chief executive Charles Dunstone has described how the fax machine in his office, unused for more than a year, ground into life when the BPI sent a message requesting the mobile phone retailer's co-operation. He told the organisation to sling its hook. Good for him.

Google and the BPI are at opposite ends of the modernity scale. One is cavalier with our privacy, the other is trying to get others to invade it on its behalf. I'm reaching for the tinfoil ...

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level


- Earlier this month, a New York judge told YouTube owner Google that it must give Viacom any personal information it has on users of the video-sharing site.

- The ruling was made as part of Viacom's $1bn lawsuit against Google, which is allegedly encouraging copyright infringement on YouTube.

- The judge said Google must hand over the data - which includes unique internet addresses, email accounts and video-viewing histories - so Viacom can include it as evidence.

- Google said it would seek permission to clean the data of personal information, saying: 'We will ask Viacom to respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymise the logs before producing them.'

- Civil liberties campaigners claim the ruling could lead to more companies being sued in the pursuit of internet users' personal information.

- Google paid $1.65bn for YouTube in 2006. Viacom's assets include MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures.


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