Court: YouTube Must Reveal Viewing Data to Viacom

Lawsuit over copyright infringement raises privacy concerns.

Google and its YouTube unit must hand over reams of data to media conglomerate Viacom about what videos YouTube users watched on the site, according to a ruling by a U.S. District Court judge over litigation brought by Viacom and European soccer organization the Barclays Premier League.

Viacom and the Premiere League both sued Google and YouTube on the grounds that the YouTube Web site is facilitating the unauthorized distribution and viewing of copyright-protected content, including Viacom movies and TV shows and broadcasts of Premiere League soccer games, by allowing YouTube subscribers to upload such video to the site.

Viacom sought up to $1 billion in damages, injunctions against further copyright-infringement behavior and access to the YouTube search code that lets users seek out content.

In an opinion and order filed Wednesday, Judge Louis Stanton of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied Viacom’s request that Google and YouTube produce their proprietary search code.

But Stanton did rule that YouTube had to produce copies of every video YouTube removed from the site, either for violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or because users flagged the copy as inappropriate.

More important, Stanton also ruled that YouTube had to hand over detailed information about what videos were watched by which users from YouTube’s logging database. That data include the YouTube user ID, the Internet-protocol address of the computer being used to watch a video, the identifier for the video and the time a video started to be watched.

YouTube argued against disclosing such information on the grounds of privacy concerns, as well as the financial and operational burden of producing some 12 terabytes of data. But Stanton dismissed YouTube’s objections and deemed its privacy concerns as being “speculative.” He noted that YouTube user names are meant to be anonymous and cited a blog posting by a Google engineer that suggested that identifying a user solely by their IP address, without additional information, is very difficult.

“Therefore, the motion to compel production of all data from the logging database concerning each time a YouTube video has been viewed on the YouTube Web site or through embedding on a third-party Web site is granted,” Stanton stated in his ruling.

Consumer-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said Stanton’s ruling ignores federal law, specifically the protections of the Video Privacy Protection Act, and urged Google and YouTube to fight the judge’s order.

“The court's erroneous ruling is a setback to privacy rights and will allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube,” EFF senior staff attorney Kurt Opsahl said in a blog posting. “We urge Viacom to back off this overbroad request and Google to take all steps necessary to challenge this order and protect the rights of its users.”