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Little brother is watching you — on YouTube

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In 1948, George Orwell wrote a book that introduced a new phrase into the lexicon. "Big brother" became such a bogeyman of the future that people have been imagining they see him ever since. "Big brother may be watching" has become the universal cry of civil libertarians from the days of Joseph McCarthy to the Patriot Act.

And now it turns out he was wrong. The future had more to do with "little brother" all along.

Just ask the now former 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis. Little brother caught her berating a deer hunter in her courtroom and then throwing him in jail for contempt. Then he caught her again making disparaging remarks about LDS baptism ("dunking," she called it) during a divorce proceeding, clearly crossing a line separating church and state.

Because of this, she is now a member of a small club in Utah — one consisting of judges thrown out by voters in a retention election.

Or ask George Allen, the Republican senator from Virginia whose re-election campaign hit a serious snag when little brother was on hand to watch him refer to a dark-skinned member of his opponent's campaign as "macaca," which some interpreted as a racial slur.

Or ask Brad Benson, a Republican state senator from the state of Washington, who told a sympathetic crowd recently that condoms distributed by Planned Parenthood had an 80 percent failure rate. This, he said, is because "they (Planned Parenthood) have an interest in the follow-on product," meaning the group encourages abortions.

Planned Parenthood is open to a lot of criticism, but those particular claims happen to be completely false. Then again, Benson probably never thought he had an audience beyond the doors of the room in which he made the statement.

In its latest issue, Time magazine names the Web site YouTube as the Invention of the Year for 2006. That honor, prestigious as it is, may be a gross understatement. Each of the above examples was made possible by YouTube. And each of us — myself, you, your neighbors and acquaintances — could be snared by it if we happen to "lose it" or just say something stupid.

YouTube was invented by Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim, a couple of young guys who saw a need for a place on the Internet where people could post all those little videos they take with their cameras or cell phones. Time's report said they envisioned it as a place for vacation videos or to help sell things on auction sites such as eBay. But as with so much on the Internet, the public got hold of YouTube and made it so much more.

Now it is home to everything from interesting storytellers to unwitting people acting out in public to politicians and other public servants making fools of themselves.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I keep harking back to the fifth grade, when I had a particularly irrational teacher who was given to frightening outbursts in the classroom. Because few adults would consider the word of a fifth-grader, my classmates got the bright idea to catch her in the act and document her behavior. We spent much of one particular class period trying to goad her into exploding. Then, when we finally lit the fuse, one of the students stood up calmly, pulled out a camera and took a snapshot.

It wasn't a well thought-out strategy. Nor was it a particularly bright thing to do to a teacher prone to temper tantrums.

But today. Ah, today we could have used a cell phone to secretly take a video of my teacher going berserk. One quick e-mail to school board members and she'd have been history.

An adage says you never should do anything you would be ashamed to do if the whole world was watching. But today you have to be aware that, at any moment, you are surrounded by people who could capture what you do without your knowledge. Politicians can't play fast and loose. Regular people have to demonstrate decorum. The time will surely come when a child will out an abusive parent with condemning footage.

Those are good things. But, on the other hand, who among us is perfect? And who among us can't edit digital videos? Little brother might make even tiny mistakes look awfully big. That's scarier than anything Orwell envisioned.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com.