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Judge grants Viacom 12TB of YouTube user records

Google's privacy comeuppance

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In the ongoing $1bn legal spat between Google and Viacom, a federal judge has ordered the search giant to turn over all existing records of every video viewed on YouTube. That includes user account names and IP addresses.

Yesterday, Judge Louis L. Stanton said Google must provide Viacom with the 12 terabyte "logging database concerning each time a YouTube video has been viewed on the YouTube website or through embedding on a third-party website."

Google had told Judge Stanton that forking over those 12TBs would violate the privacy of YouTube users. "[Viacom] would likely be able to determine the viewing and video uploading habits of YouTube's users based on the user's login ID and the user's IP address," the company's lawyers said.

But the judge pointed to a famous Google blog post where the company says IP addresses don't always reveal real live people: "We are... strong supporters of the idea that data protection laws should apply to any data that could identify you," wrote Google software engineer Alma Whitten. "The reality though is that in most cases, an IP address without additional information cannot."

We call this comeuppance.

There is a US law that specifically protects the privacy of people who watch videos. It's called Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). But Judge Stanton has chosen to look past it.

"[Stanton's order] seems to run afoul of the Video Privacy Protection Act, which says that if you're trying to obtain these kinds of records, you must give subscribers or users notice," said Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a well-known net watchdog. "The law is pretty straightforward."

In his order, Stanton alluded to the VPPA - which was laid down in 1988 after a journalist revealed videotapes rented by Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork - but he didn't actually address it.

According to a secret Cnet source, a separate protective order prevents Viacom from using those 12TBs of data for anything other than its stated goal: pinpointing the prevalence of piracy on YouTube. Viacom's $1bn suit accuses Google and YouTube of encouraging people to infringe its copyrights.

Meanwhile, Google senior litigation counsel Catherine Lacavera hopes to remove IPs before turning over the database. "We are disappointed the court granted Viacom's overreaching demand for viewing history," she said. "We will ask Viacom to respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymize the logs before producing them under the court's order."

And it looks like Viacom will give the OK. "The Court's recent decision has triggered concern about what information will be disclosed and how it will be used," according to a canned statement from the company. "Viacom has not asked for and will not be obtaining any personally identifiable information of any user.

"Any information that we or our outside advisors obtain - which will not include personally identifiable information - will be used exclusively for the purpose of proving our case against YouTube and Google, will be handled subject to a court protective order and in a highly confidential manner."

But according to court papers, Viacom asked for the entire database - IP addresses and all. And the law has been ignored. "It would be a good thing if customer information is redacted," Zimmerman told us. "But that's not what the law requires. It doesn't say: 'Be careful with the information if you get it.' It says: 'You can't get it in the first place.'"

So, no one has behaved well. Not Stanton. Not Viacom. And not Google. ®

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