July 03, 2008

Google Lawyers Look to Hide
YouTube-User Identification

July 3, 2008 8:49 p.m.

Lawyers for Google Inc. Thursday asked Viacom Inc. for permission to better hide information that might help personally identify YouTube users before Google complies with a judge's demand that it hand over YouTube "user logs" -- the records of what videos people watch -- to Viacom.

The letter comes a day after a federal judge in New York ordered Google to give Viacom a database that links users of YouTube -- a Google unit -- with every video clip they have ever watched through the service in conjunction with Viacom's $1 billion copyright suit against Google.

A Viacom spokesman said Thursday that the data the company has requested from Google don't identify users personally and "will be used exclusively for the purpose of proving our case against YouTube and Google." He added that the data "will be handled subject to a court protective order and in a highly confidential manner."

Viacom is seeking the data in order to bolster its copyright claims against YouTube and Google. In particular, Viacom is seeking to determine how often its copyright-protected videos are watched compared with other amateur content on YouTube. That data could bear on the plaintiffs' argument that their copyright-protected content helps draw users to YouTube, leading to a financial benefit for Google.

The discussion about the data comes amid a debate over just how much information can be gleaned from the YouTube database. The database pairs each instance that a video is viewed with the unique login identification code of the user who viewed it and the "Internet Protocol," or IP, address for that viewer's computer.

The database doesn't include identifiers like personal names or email addresses. But the court's decision to compel Google to share it drew immediate criticism from privacy advocates who argued that the data could expose the viewing habits of online video watchers. They note that users often put fragments of their own names in their IDs, for example.

Citing "the significant volume of public protest" generated by the court's demand, lawyers for Google Thursday wrote to Viacom requesting permission to redact user names and IP addresses from the data before turning them over.

A Viacom spokesman said in a statement that the company is working to address Google's concerns but declined to comment about the letter's specific requests. "We will continue to work together on this issue, and Viacom is committed to developing a framework with strong confidentiality protections," he said.

Google fought Viacom's request for user data on the grounds that it would allow Viacom to "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," according to court papers.

Judge Louis Stanton wrote that the privacy concerns were "speculative" and argued that the database was the only existing record of "how often each video has been viewed during various time periods."

Privacy advocates also noted that the debate is a reminder of the vast repositories of data Google and YouTube keep about their users and the online services they use. A YouTube spokesman said the company hangs on to IP information in order to comply with laws than ban some types of content in some markets and to improve the user experience.

The judge also Wednesday ruled that YouTube was not obliged to turn over its "source code" -- the basic code that runs its site -- as part of the suit.

In a statement responding to the court's decision, Catherine Lacavera, Google's senior litigation counsel, said Google was "pleased the court put some limits on discovery, including refusing to allow Viacom to access users' private videos and our search technology." She added: "We are disappointed the court granted Viacom's overreaching demand for viewing history."

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