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Viacom allows Google to conceal YouTube usernames in court case

Legal combatants agree on deal to replace user IDs in video logging database with other values

By Peter Sayer
July 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - Google Inc. will be able to conceal the identities of YouTube users when it hands over a database of their viewing habits to Viacom International Inc. in response to a court order, the companies agreed Monday.

Although Google must still provide Viacom with the database logging which videos were viewed on the YouTube site and when, it can modify the user ID, visitor ID and IP address fields showing who watched the videos and from where. Google will replace the data in those fields with unique values preserving the relationship between them but protecting the anonymity of YouTube users, according to legal papers filed jointly by the two companies in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (download PDF).

Viacom filed suit against Google and its YouTube LLC video-sharing subsidiary early last year, accusing them of illegally distributing its copyrighted content. As part of the discovery phase of the case, Viacom asked for access to the video-viewing information stored in YouTube's logging database, claiming that the data could help it show that copyrighted content is of more interest to YouTube's users than videos created by other users are.

Earlier this month, the judge overseeing the lawsuit ruled in favor of Viacom and ordered Google to give the media and entertainment company a copy of the database.

Some privacy advocates were appalled by the ruling; for example, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco warned in a blog post that the ruling "threatens to expose deeply private information about what videos are watched by YouTube users." However, other privacy advocates raised the question of why Google is collecting and retaining the video-viewing data in the first place.

Monday's agreement likely will help allay the fears about possible disclosures of personal information, although much will depend on the process that Google uses to choose the values that it will use to replace the user IDs and other information in the database.

When researchers at AOL LLC published logs of the online searches conducted by about 658,000 of its users in 2006, some of those users were quickly identified despite the fact that their usernames were replaced with unique, anonymous codes. AOL promised to beef up its data privacy policies after that incident, which resulted in the resignation of the company's chief technology officer and the firing of two researchers as well as the filing of a lawsuit against AOL.

As part of the agreement between Google and Viacom, the latter company said it will "not engage in any efforts to circumvent the encryption" used to conceal the IP addresses and YouTube user IDs in the logging database.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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