Judge orders video logs

Data on YouTube users demanded

July 04, 2008|By New York Times News Service

SAN FRANCISCO - A federal judge has ordered Google to turn over to Viacom its records of which users watched which videos on YouTube, the Web's largest video site by far.

The order raised concerns among YouTube users and privacy advocates that the video viewing habits of tens of millions of people could be exposed. But Google Inc. and Viacom Inc. said they were hoping to come up with a way to protect the anonymity of the site's visitors.

Viacom also said that the information would be safeguarded by a protective order restricting access to the data to outside lawyers, who will use it solely to press Viacom's $1 billion copyright lawsuit against Google.

Still, the order by Judge Louis L. Stanton of the Southern District of New York, made public late Wednesday, renewed concerns among privacy advocates that Internet companies such as Google are collecting unprecedented amounts of private information that could be misused or fall unexpectedly into the hands of third parties.

"These very large databases of transactional information become honey pots for law enforcement or for litigants," said Chris Hoofnagle, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.

Viacom wants the viewing data in part to help it determine the extent to which YouTube's success was built on the popularity of copyright clips that were illegally posted to the site. Outside experts say that without the data it would be virtually impossible to pin that down.

For every video on YouTube, the judge required Google to turn over to Viacom the login name of every user who watched it, and the address of the computer, known as an IP, or Internet protocol, address. Both companies have argued that IP addresses alone cannot be used to unmask the identities of individuals with certainty. But in many cases, technology experts and others have been able to link IP addresses to individuals using other records of their online activities.

The amount of data covered by the order is staggering, as it includes every video watched on YouTube since its founding in 2005. In April alone, 82 million people in the United States watched 4.1 billion clips there, according to comScore, a market research firm that tracks Internet use. Some experts say virtually every Internet user has visited YouTube.

Google and Viacom said they had had discussions about ways to further protect users' anonymity, but as of yesterday evening the two companies had yet to agree on how to do that.

Michael Fricklas, Viacom's general counsel, said Viacom would not have direct access to the data, and that its use would be strictly limited by the court order. In a letter sent yesterday, Google's lawyers pressed their counterparts at Viacom to accept more limited data.

"We request that plaintiffs agree that YouTube may redact usernames and IP addresses from the viewing data in the interests of protecting user privacy," wrote David H. Kramer, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

In a response, a Viacom lawyer wrote that Viacom was "committed to working with Google" on the privacy issue.

Interestingly, Google has rejected demands by privacy groups for more stringent protections for IP address records, saying that in most cases the addresses cannot be used to identify users. Yet Google argued that YouTube viewing data should be kept from Viacom, in part, to protect the privacy of its users.

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