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Viacom sues YouTube: The breakdown

July 19, 2008

Viacom’s recent $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube veered disturbingly close to an unprecedented infringement of privacy due to a legal ruling. US judge Louis Stanton ordered Google to hand over records of all the videos it has played on YouTube to Viacom, who claims Google is not doing enough to remove copyrighted material from its server. Viacom’s rationale was that it needed these records to prove that YouTube’s viewers were consuming more copyrighted than copyright-free content.

Flirting with privacy infringement

If the plaintiff had only requested the records of videos watched to prove its case, it would have been a legitimate invocation of the legal process, but the controversy centered Viacom’s demand and subsequent award of YouTube’s user histories and IP addresses. Viacom said that it was not going to use this data to find individual users. However, privacy advocates claim that there was enough in the logs to identify many users, and have called the ruling a violation of previous privacy law.

Viacom steps back

As of July 15th, YouTube and Viacom reached a deal where YouTube will remove all user names and IP addresses from the logs, using an anonymized random code instead. This is good news for privacy advocates, but it leaves questions as to why Viacom softened its approach to the pursuit of personally identifying information, when they were given the legal entitlement. Possibly, they wished to avert the terrible public relations and possible subsequent loss of revenue brought by a wildfire of consumer wrath. Perhaps they realized that there was no legal reason, (and even less motivation) to have the true IP addresses, given their stated strategy of proving viewing habits, and Google’s offer to anonymize the IPs offered a way out where both of the giant corporations could save face. Fortunately in this case, the parties settled the privacy controversy amongst themselves, and privacy advocates are mollified for now. But the court order stood, and this sets an uncomfortable precedent.

Wide reaching relevance

If this legal controversy is taking place in the US, how is it important to Canadians? Internet technology permeates borders, and the court order could have potentially breached the privacy of users who watch YouTube videos from anywhere outside the US jurisdiction under which it was served. Because of the wide reach that the Internet affords content providers like YouTube, the fallout from a ruling ordered under the US DMCA could be compromised consumer privacy on an international level.

It is good that Google and Viacom are working on anonymizing logs, but despite the civility of the parties in this aspect of the case, the court order stands. When a legal organ of an individual nation interprets and applies its national laws upon the nationless terrain of communications technologies, what will the fallout be?

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