In early July 2008 a New York court ruled that YouTube (through its corporate parent, Google) must provide records for every viewer of every video it had on its web site. It was a big deal for Viacom--they have a lawsuit against YouTube--and even bigger news for you and me. And here is why.
The Web has emerged as the ultimate democracy of ideas, largely built upon new software driven by the ingenuity and creativity of companies like Google, Facebook and even IBM. All of us have been “drinking the Kool-Aid” of this new generation of computer savants and enjoying its obvious and intoxicating benefits without thinking about the long-term impacts. Boy, are we stupid.
In the recent film by Morgan Spurlock, “Super Size Me”, the hero/narrator was exposed to the impact of a McDonald’s-only diet, with weight gains and potential organ damage as the emerging end product of his month-long date with MickeyD’s. It was obvious for everyone watching this film that McDonalds’ version of the hamburger (i.e. the Big Mac) was a really bad idea – and that long-term, over-consumption could kill you. Seeing our hero get fatter each week was a sign that things were not going well.
But as the courts demonstrated in the YouTube/Viacom case, we are heading toward a similar (but a far more abstract) and depressing future created by these new-generation computer companies. The sad thing is that we should know better, and the writing on the court walls could not have been more descriptive.
In Orwell’s classic book, 1984, the fictitious state used various ways of mislabeling to confuse the real mission of its organizations. A “Ministry of Love,” for example, would be used to torture people; the “Ministry of Peace” would make war. Google is in some ways playing the same game with us, with the child-like mantra of “Do No Evil” and the clever, cartoon-like logos on its web site as ways of hiding behind what could one day emerge as the single biggest threat to personal liberty, the commercial aggregation of data on all members of society.
Unlike the community of researchers looking at how to develop the next generation pharmaceuticals, Google has almost zero oversight in what it decides to collect on you and me as their construction of a new form of intellectual currency around our personal actions defining a growing income for them and the company’s shareholders. Unless we would like to completely eliminate the societal and personal protections we have evolved over the past several hundred years, it is time to wake up and use one of the last defenses around to protect ourselves, our legal system and the creation of new laws to redefine privacy and attack this new generation of out of control commercialism.
I am not suggesting that the founders and leadership of Google are evil. The business and solutions they have demonstrated have incalculable value and have brought more information to more people than anyone in history. They have and should receive our thanks for this success.
But I am suggesting that they are not nearly as smart as we think and probably not visionary enough to understand the fire that they, and other members of the data-mining community, are starting. As history has demonstrated on countless occasions, our world is largely filled with pockets of brilliant ideas surrounded by even more bad ones – and it is often hard to differentiate between the two. Building personal repositories on each of us that tracks every single click of our mouse is one of the most dangerous things I have ever heard anyone discuss – or suggest that they would use as a basis for a “big business.”
Thankfully, the legal system of the United States has, on more than one occasion, proven that it contains some of our most substantial thinkers and maybe the only ones that can look long-term for us on this one. I definitely do not trust the business community to demonstrate ethical leadership here. Anyone heard of the Subprime mess? How about Enron?
Playing with gasoline and matches is a bad idea. Combining personal and private information on an individual with business is worse. It’s time to nip the bud of this movement before all of us start feeling the pains of a new form of discrimination. We need to make sure that our courts (and legal system) do not allow Google and its various partners to create the same type of dark force in the information industry that the purveyors of Eugenics brought to medicine in the 19th century. One nightmare for me: Google is already there.
So have you signed up for your Internet-based health information account yet? You may want to think hard about this one – and look closely at who is offering it. Definitely read the fine print before you click on the “accept” button on these web pages.
Carey Kriz is the author of The Patient Will See You Now (Rowman & Littlefield).