Is the latest YouTube court ruling really a 'privacy concern?'

Although privacy advocates are up in arms, a judge's decision in the ongoing court battle between Viacom and YouTube is likely to have little or no real impact on most people who have viewed videos on YouTube.

In the US District Court for Southern New York on Wednesday, Judge Louis Stanton ruled that Google must turn over all of its YouTube viewing logs to Viacom. Specifically, Judge Stanton ordered Google to turn over to Viacom a log containing the login IDs and IP addresses of sources from which videos were downloaded, and details about those videos.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has already slammed the ruling as a "setback to privacy rights," and other advocacy groups are following suit.

But might the EFF's response be interpreted as somewhat of an overreaction? Only those users with registered YouTube accounts have log-in IDs, anyway -- and if you want to download video from YouTube, it isn't even necessary to sign up for an account.

Moreover, for YouTube users who are downloading videos from behind network routers or corporate gateways -- and there are untold numbers of them out there -- the IP address refers to the gateway rather than to a specific PC.

Google itself acknowledged this reality in a document to the court, which is excerpted in the court decision.

"We...are strong supporters of the idea that data protection laws should apply to any data that could identify you. The reality is though that, in most cases, an IP address without additional information cannot," according to Google.

As previously reported in BetaNews, the case centers on claims by Viacom -- the parent company of both MTV and Paramount Pictures -- along with a class of co-plaintiffs led by Europe's Premier League Football -- that Google is guilty of massive copyright infringement for allegedly allowing users to view movie clips and soccer highlights.

In initiating the case back in March of 2007, plaintiffs said they had identified about 160,000 unauthorized clips of European football programs -- viewed more than 1.5 billion times -- on YouTube.

Viacom contends that it needs the information in YouTube's database so as to "compare the attractiveness of allegedly infringing videos with that of non-infringing videos," according to this week's court ruling.

In reaching this week's ruling, the judge used the term "speculative" to refer to privacy concerns expressed by Google. He also denied an argument by Google that Viacom's demands for information in the logging database are "unduly burdensome" to Google.

"While the logging database is large, all of its contents can be copied onto a few 'over-the-shelf' four-terabyte hard drives," wrote the judge.

In a victory for Google, the court denied a demand from Viacom for Google to turn over YouTube's source code, dubbing it a "trade secret."

But also as part of the ruling, the judge ordered Google to hand over to Viacom detailed information about any videos that have been removed from the site for any reason.

After Viacom launched its part of the case in 2007, YouTube installed filtering tools in attempts to prevent copyrighted materials from showing up on its service.

In a statement this week, Google Senior Litigation Counsel Catherine Lacavera said: "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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