YouTube Ordered To Release User Data

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

A federal judge in New York this week ordered the video-sharing site YouTube, the world's third-most-visited Web site, to release data on the viewing habits of its tens of millions of worldwide viewers.

Tuesday's ruling, which amounted to only seven paragraphs in a 25-page opinion that was mostly about programming code and other matters, alarmed privacy advocates, who said it ignored laws meant to protect peoples' viewing habits.

The order comes as part of a $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit brought against YouTube's owner, Google, by Viacom, the media company that owns large cable networks such as MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon. Viacom alleges that YouTube encourages people to upload significant amounts of pirated copyrighted programs and that users do so by the thousands, profiting YouTube and Google. It wants to prove that pirated videos uploaded to the site -- video clips of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," for instance -- are more heavily viewed than amateur content.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton granted Viacom's request that YouTube release its 12-terabyte "logging" database -- a database that is larger than the Library of Congress's collection of about 10 million books, to Viacom. Every minute, 13 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube servers. The site logs hundreds of millions of views a week.

The database contains the unique login ID of the viewer, the time he began watching, the Internet Protocol, or IP, address of the user's computer and the identification of the video. That database is the only existing record of how often each video has been viewed during various time periods, the opinion said. Its data can recreate the number of views of a video for any particular day.

In ordering the data release, Stanton said that YouTube's privacy concerns were "speculative," that Google cited "no authority barring them from disclosing such information in civil discovery proceedings" and that Google itself has noted that an IP address without additional information cannot in most cases identify a person.

Privacy advocates said the ruling disregarded the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act passed by Congress to protect people's video-viewing habits from being disclosed. The law says that records may not be turned over unless the consumer is given the opportunity to object.

"People recognize that what videos you watch is deeply private information that can tell a lot about you," said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "And that might be information you might not want revealed."

Viacom General Counsel Michael Fricklas said yesterday that Viacom has no intention of going after individual users. "Even if they uploaded pirated clips, we're not going to use the data to find them. We're not going to use it to sue them. We're not going to use it to look at who they are."

Rather, the company has argued, the data could be used to measure the popularity of copyrighted video against non-copyrighted video.

Yesterday, lawyers for Google said they would not appeal the ruling. They sent Viacom a letter requesting that the company allow YouTube to redact user names and IP addresses from the data.

"We are pleased the court put some limits on discovery, including refusing to allow Viacom to access users' private videos and our search technology," Google senior litigation counsel Catherine Lacavera said in a statement. "We are disappointed the court granted Viacom's overreaching demand for viewing history. We will ask Viacom to respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymize the logs before producing them under the court's order."

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