SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) — A US judge has ordered Google to expose to Viacom the video-viewing habits of everyone who has ever used YouTube in a decision condemned by the Internet giant and privacy advocates.
US District Court Judge Louis Stanton backed Viacom's request for data on which YouTube users watch which videos on the website in order to support its case in a billion-dollar copyright lawsuit against Google.
Viacom charges Google, which bought YouTube in 2006, acts as a willing accomplice to Internet users who put clips of Viacom's copyrighted television programs on the popular video-sharing website.
"We are disappointed the court granted Viacom's overreaching demand for viewing history," Google senior litigation counsel Catherine Lacavera told AFP in an email Thursday.
Stanton brushed aside privacy concerns on Tuesday while ordering Google to give Viacom log-in names of YouTube users and Internet protocol (IP) addresses identifying which computers they used for viewing videos.
Stanton contends that Viacom needs more than pseudonyms and IP numbers that are tantamount to addresses on the Internet to identify individual YouTube users.
Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kurt Opsahl called the court's ruling a significant reversal to privacy rights.
The judge's ruling ignores US federal law as well as a "fiasco" that resulted after America Online gave researchers what it thought was anonymous search data, Opsahl said.
People's online searches can unintentionally divulge identities even without accompanying onscreen nicknames or IP addresses, according to Opsahl.
"The court's erroneous ruling is a set-back to privacy rights and will allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube," he said.
"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."
Viacom issued a statement Thursday saying it is only out to bolster its case against Google and not to expose or pursue viewers of copyrighted videos.
"Any information that we or our outside advisors obtain will be used exclusively for the purpose of proving our case against YouTube and Google," Viacom said.
"It will be handled subject to a court protective order and in a highly confidential manner."
In what Google claims as a partial victory, Stanton denied Viacom's request to get its hands on secret source code used in YouTube video searches as well as for Internet searches.
Stanton also refused a Viacom request to order Google to provide access to the videos YouTube users store in private YouTube files.
Google lawyers opposed each of the Viacom requests, which were made in a "discovery" evidence-gathering phase of a lawsuit filed in March of last year in US District Court in New York state.
"We are pleased the court put some limits on discovery, including refusing to allow Viacom to access users' private videos and our search technology," Lacavera said.
"We will ask Viacom to respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymize the logs before producing them under the court's order."
Google decries the lawsuit as an attack on the underpinnings of the Internet, while Viacom argues that the California-based Internet search colossus and especially its subsidiary YouTube are involved in "massive" copyright infringement.
The Viacom lawsuit has been merged with similar civil litigation being pursued by the Premier League of England's Football Association, which says soccer game clips are routinely posted on YouTube without authorization.
Google shields itself with 1998's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, US legislation that says Internet firms are not responsible for what Internet users put on websites.
Industry insiders suspect Viacom is using the lawsuit as a negotiating tactic and has no intention of taking the matter to trial.
Viacom's goal could be to reach into Google's deep pockets for royalties for videos played on YouTube.
Viacom, however, said it had no choice but to sue after "a great deal of unproductive negotiation" failed to curtail YouTube's "unlawful business model."
The Viacom stable includes Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and more than 130 other television networks around the world, plus an array of websites.
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