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Published: Tuesday, 7/15/2008

Internet privacy issue: YouTube and Viacom wrestle with revealing user identitiies

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK In a nod to privacy complaints, Viacom Inc. won't be told the identities of individuals who watch video clips on the popular video-sharing site YouTube.

Viacom and other copyright holders have agreed to let YouTube mask user IDs and Internet addresses when Google Inc.'s online video site hands over viewership records in a $1 billion lawsuit accusing YouTube of enabling copyright infringement. A federal judge ordered the database produced in a July 1 ruling widely criticized by privacy activists.

"We remain committed to protecting your privacy and we'll continue to fight for your right to share and broadcast your work on YouTube," the company said in a blog posting late Monday disclosing the agreement.

Viacom is seeking at least $1 billion in damages from Google, saying YouTube built its business by infringing copyrights on Viacom shows, which include Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" cartoon.

U.S. District Judge Louis L. 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.

The YouTube database includes information on when each video gets played. Attached to each entry is each viewer's unique login ID and the Internet Protocol, or IP, address for that viewer's computer identifiers that, while seemingly anonymous, can often be traced to specific individuals, or at least their employers or hometowns.

But lawyers for Viacom and the other plaintiffs signed an agreement with YouTube on 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 address as "not private," and with the agreement, "we have managed to put to bed a non-issue." Viacom had no comment.

The masked database will still have to let the plaintiffs determine which individual watched which clip and when, but the records will cloak cases in which an existing identifier contains personally identifiable information such as first initial and full last name in a user ID.

In limited circumstances, it may still be possible to track records to a specific individual based on that person's viewing habits. Time Warner Inc.'s AOL discovered that 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.

"It's better than providing that information without that substitution, but I don't think it addresses the privacy concerns by a long shot," said Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

For example, someone might be frequently viewing videos of themselves or the bands they are in. Even with anonymous identifiers, Seltzer said, that person can still be linked to other clips they watch.

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

The YouTube data would not be publicly released, but disclosed only to the plaintiffs, likely under a court-sanctioned confidentiality order. Viacom also has pledged not to use the data to identify individual users to sue.

Still in dispute is whether YouTube would be able to make viewing records on its own employees anonymous as well. If a YouTube employee had viewed an episode of "The Daily Show," for instance, Viacom could argue that YouTube directly knew of copyright infringement. And that could dissolve the immunity protections that service providers generally have when they merely host content submitted by their users.



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