Judge grants privacy in YouTube suit

Viacom had sought user info in copyright case

Bowing to privacy watchdogs, Viacom has agreed to allow YouTube to mask the online viewing history of its clips when the latter turns over records to the conglom in a $1 billion copyright infringement suit.

Judge Louis L. Stanton of the U.S. District Court in New York had ordered Google’s popular video-sharing site to turn over user IDs and Internet addresses for all those who have ever viewed clips on its site or embedded online elsewhere. The July 1 ruling was widely criticized by privacy activists.

Viacom had sought those records to prove its case that YouTube wasn’t doing enough to prevent piracy of skeins such as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Although both sides have claimed, at one time or another, that the information could not be used to identify individuals, privacy watchdogs aren’t convinced; many have been uneasy about YouTube’s policy of retaining such data in the first place. Nevertheless, YouTube cast the July 14 agreement to mask the information as a victory.

“We are pleased to report that Viacom, MTV and other litigants have backed off their original demand for all users’ viewing histories, and we will not be providing that information,” the Netco proudly trumpeted on its site Monday night after lawyers agreed to modifications. “In addition, Viacom and the plaintiffs had originally demanded access to users’ private videos, our search technology and our video identification technology,” it continued. “Our lawyers strongly opposed each of those demands, and the court sided with us.”

Viacom, for its part, said it was pleased that Google would comply with the court’s directive to provide YouTube usage data, which it said “will highlight the way YouTube has used copyrighted material to build its business.” It said anonymizing the data “is the best way for Google to address privacy concerns.”

Stanton had dismissed privacy concerns as speculative when he authorized full access to the YouTube viewer logs. Viacom and other plaintiffs argued that they need the data to show whether their copyright-protected videos are more heavily watched than amateur clips.

Lawyers for Viacom and the other plaintiffs signed an agreement Monday saying they would accept measures to help YouTube preserve the anonymity of the records. Under the agreement, YouTube can swap the user logins and IP addresses with other, presumably anonymous signifiers; YouTube has a week to propose its method.

Viacom’s lawsuit has been combined with a similar case filed by a British soccer league and other parties. Louis Solomon, a lawyer for those plaintiffs, said Google has long described records like IP addresses as “not private” and, with the agreement, “We have managed to put to bed a nonissue.”

In limited circumstances, it may still be possible to track records to a specific individual based on that person’s viewing habits, as Time Warner’s AOL discovered when it released to academic researchers some 19 million search requests made over three months. AOL substituted numeric IDs for the subscribers’ real user names, yet the disclosure of what people had searched for produced enough clues to track down some of the users and identify them.

Privacy watchdogs said Google and YouTube ought to reconsider whether to even retain the data.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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