Google must hand YouTube log files over to Viacom
In a legal dispute with Viacom over copyright infringement on YouTube, a New York district court has ordered Google to hand over all saved log files to the media company. The ruling (PDF), handed down on Tuesday, relates to the video portal's entire log database. This contains IP addresses of computers from which users have watched videos, the start time of film clips, their identification numbers and in some cases users' login names. This data, which frequently allows easy identification of the user, is recorded when watching a video on either YouTube or on another site containing an embedded YouTube video.
The US civil rights organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has described the ruling as a serious "set-back to privacy rights" and a breach of one clause of the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA). There is also a question mark over how far the court ruling breaches data protection legislation in regions like the EU, which has specific privacy provisions for personal information such as IP addresses.
Google argued that the twelve terabyte database could not be released because of concerns over user privacy. Judge Louis Stanton, however, assessed the data protection concerns as "speculative". According to the judge, YouTube's parent company failed to give genuine grounds to prevent disclosure of the extensive collection of information in civil proceedings. In a footnote, Stanton notes that the VPPA relates to the sale of physical video cassettes only.
Google's own attitude to the legal status of IP addresses has not aided its predicament – the US company has long expressed the opinion that "in most cases" IP addresses cannot be regarded as personal data without additional information. Google hopes thereby to avoid having to shorten the period for which it stores search query data – including IP addresses – from the 18 months it currently practises, a fact not overlooked by the judge. He also pointed out that the search engine company itself had declared that the login name for YouTube is an "anonymous pseudonym", which users could think up for themselves. The idea that web users might in some cases use their actual names appears not to have occurred to Google.
Media company Viacom, which is responsible for channels such as MTV and VH1, launched its action against Google and its YouTube subsidiary in New York in March 2007. The company is accusing the internet business of "massive copyright infringement" and is demanding compensation of $1 billion.