Google told to hand over YouTube users' data

Google has run into a fresh storm over online privacy after a US judge ordered YouTube, its online video site, to hand over records detailing the viewing habits of its millions of users.

The ruling came in response to a demand by Viacom, the media and entertainment group that owns MTV, which last year filed a $1bn (£504m) lawsuit against YouTube alleging copyright infringement.

The order will force YouTube to hand over computer logs that contain information that could be used to identify the videos viewed by YouTube users and, potentially, the computers on which they were viewed.

Google said the data would be restricted to lawyers and outside experts advising Viacom.

Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil rights group, called the move a "setback to privacy rights".

He said that disclosing the information could violate privacy laws, unless it was stripped of information that could tie videos to individual users.

Viacom's general counsel called the EFF on Thursday to discuss ways to remove such personally identifiable information contained in the user logs, according to the EFF. However, "anonymisation can be difficult", Mr Opsahl said. "There are plenty of people who use their own name as a user ID."

Catherine Lacavera, Google's senior litigation counsel, said Google was "disappointed" by the ruling.

She said Google would ask Viacom to "respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymise the logs before producing them under the court's order".

A Viacom official said the data would be "subject to a confidentiality order imposed by the court", and that "Viacom actually does not get to see any personally identifiable information - our outside counsel gets it, and is not permitted to share it with us".

In his ruling, US district judge Louis Stanton dismissed concerns about the threat to user privacy, branding them "speculative".

Ironically, he used arguments advanced in the past by Google itself to justify his decision, quoting from a company blog posting that claimed that "in most cases, an IP address without additional information" cannot be used to find the identity of a computer user.

Viacom - the owner of MTV and creator of The Daily Show and other television programming popular with online audiences - filed its claim against YouTube last year, alleging it did not do enough to prevent viewing of copyrighted material.

Although the data had been doctored to remove specific user login information, researchers and media outlets were able to piece together the identities of several users based on the information contained in their search requests. The result was a public uproar that led to the dismissal of several AOL executives and a huge public embarrassment.

Prior experiences with the release of user data logs have shown how they can be used to compromise the privacy of web site users. The most infamous case came in 2006, when AOL, the online media portal, published a text file containing millions of search terms entered by more than 650,000 users.

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