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YouTube could reveal a lot about you

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Much to the annoyance of European privacy regulators, Google has long argued that IP addresses do not constitute personal information. Not surprisingly, Google has pressed this position forcefully.

Well, that very public position has now come back to haunt the search giant. US media group Viacom has capitalized on Google’s position during proceedings in a New York courtroom.

Taking statements from Google’s own corporate blog, Viacom asked a N.Y. judge to compel Google to produce detailed information about the users of its Youtube service, including search logs, individual IP addresses and a record of the videos they accessed on YouTube.

Viacom is suing Google – which bought YouTube in 2006 for a cool $1 Billion US. The media giant argues that media content it should control is being loaded and accessed illegally on YouTube.

Viacom has argued YouTube and Google could do a better job of blocking access to copyrighted material, but don’t, because that’s what most people are searching for.

Google’s search logs will prove just how many times office workers around the globe are watching the Daily Show (and other Viacom productions) on their desktop – and will give some indication of the revenue Viacom is losing as a result.

The data wil also give Viacom a clear picture of exactly who watches their shows (along with those of their competitors), when, how often, and from which broadcast sources.

The judge ruled Viacom’s request was reasonable, and Google is now legally bound to hand over its search logs.

Where do individuals’ privacy rights fit into this ruling? They don’t. The judge wrote in his ruling that Google’s “database contains, for each instance a video is watched, the unique user who watched it, the time when the user started to watch the video, the internet protocol address other devices connected to the internet use to identify the user’s computer (“IP address”), and the identifier for the video … that database (which is stored on live computer hard drives) is the only existing record of how often each video has been viewed during various time periods.”

The judge did acknowledge a US law protecting the privacy of people’s video rental habits, the Video Privacy Protection Act, but found it only referred to video tapes.

What law can compel the production of this sort of personal information? The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Will Canadians viewing YouTube have their histories handed over as well? Almost certainly as US federal law provides no privacy protections for ‘personal data submitted to search engines or for IP addresses’. The Globe and Mail has reported that “the judge set no specific geographic limitations on the data Google must produce, meaning user names and Internet protocol (IP) addresses of millions of Canadians and other YouTube users outside the U.S. could also be at risk.”

Can an IP address be used to isolate individuals? Quite easily. Have you been accessing illegal content online? We hope not, now that Viacom’s lawyers have your number.

Finally, do Canada’s new copyright amendments open the door to similar legal action here?

Well, we can’t help but notice under section 41.26 of the new legislation, any Internet service provider or search engine who receives notice of copyright infringement must ‘retain records that will allow the identity of the person to whom [an] electronic location [IP address] belongs to be determined, and do so for six months … if the claimant commences proceedings relating to the claimed infringement … for one year after the day on which the person receives the notice of claimed infringement.’ What do you think?

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