Raising major concerns among privacy advocates, a federal judge has ordered Google to hand over details about the viewing habits of YouTube users to media giant Viacom.
The ruling came Wednesday as part of a $1-billion copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Viacom in March 2007 against YouTube and its corporate parent, Google.
Viacom, which runs cable networks such as MTV and Comedy Central as well as the Paramount Pictures movie studio, says it needs the data about how people use the site to show that its copyright-protected material — such as clips from “South Park” and “The Colbert Report” (pictured) — was routinely posted and watched.
Viacom vowed to not use the information it receives from YouTube against any users of the video-sharing site. But the ruling immediately prompted an outcry from privacy watchdogs. Google had fought the request for Viacom to gain access to its viewing logs, saying such a measure would invade its users’ privacy. U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton (Appointed 1985 Reagan) in New York disagreed, ordering the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant to hand over the records, which include log-on names and Internet protocol addresses — the unique identifier for computers and other Web-connected devices. In most cases, Viacom would need the help of an Internet service provider to identify individuals.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation described the ruling as a “setback to privacy rights” that “threatens to expose deeply private information.” The group said the ruling would “allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube,” and it urged Viacom “to back off this overbroad request and Google to take all steps necessary to challenge this order and protect the rights of its users.”
In a statement, the entertainment giant said it did not ask for nor would it obtain “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,” the New York-based company said.
Viacom general counsel Michael Fricklas said “unequivocally that this information will not be used” for the purpose of trying to find the identities of people who uploaded copyrighted Viacom clips to YouTube.
Google has denied that YouTube infringes copyright, saying that it removes illegal material once notified, in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Google senior litigation counsel Catherine Lacavera said the company was asking Viacom to respect YouTube users’ privacy and to allow YouTube to “anonymize the logs before producing them under the court’s order.” Fricklas said Viacom was considering the request to render the data anonymous.
Viacom had also asked that Google be forced to disclose YouTube’s source code to reveal how the site works, but the judge denied that request.
“YouTube should not be made to place this vital asset in hazard merely to allay speculation,” Stanton said.