Google has been ordered to turn over YouTube user data to Viacom. But Viacom will be guilty of contempt of court if it uses that data for anything other than specifically proving the prevalence of piracy on YouTube, a source close to Viacom told CNET News.com on Thursday.
That's serious business. Contempt of court is the sort of thing that can get a lawyer's license taken away.
On Wednesday night, a federal judge ruled that Google must turn over YouTube user activity--videos watched, IP addresses, usernames--to legal foe Viacom as part of a long-running copyright infringement case. But the source told CNET News.com that a heavy protective order is in place that will keep individuals' personal information cloaked.
The court's protective order stipulates that data turned over to Viacom by Google must be used for the sole purpose of proving Viacom's claim against Google that YouTube is a hotbed of pirated video content, the sources said. Viacom will not have direct access to the YouTube user data, the source said. Access is restricted to outside counsel and experts.
Viacom, therefore, is forbidden from targeting individual users in the manner of the RIAA's lawsuits against individuals found to be downloading illegal music.
It'd also make them look bad in the case, said Jim DeLong, senior analyst at the Convergence Law Institute. "I would assume that they will indeed not use it for anything shady, because that would undermine their overall strategy," he said. "What they're focused is the basic relationship between the content providers and companies like Google."
Early reactions to the news of the court decision ranged from outrage to hysteria, with prominent privacy advocates sharply criticizing the decision by U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton. "The court's order...threatens to expose deeply private information about what videos are watched by YouTube users," Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post on Wednesday evening. "The court's erroneous ruling is a set-back to privacy rights, and will allow Viacom to see what you are watching on YouTube."
"I hope this ruling serves as a flashpoint or wake-up call to a variety of people who can make a national privacy standard a reality," wrote Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land on Thursday morning. "We don't need more empty talk. We need actual progress."
The monitoring of video consumption has been a particularly sensitive area of federal law ever since the late 1980s, in the days of the hotly contested nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. A journalist went to a video store where Bork had been spotted, easily obtained his rental history, and published it. The controversy resulted in the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988.
"As Congress recognized, your selection of videos to watch is deeply personal and deserves the strongest protection," the EFF's Opsahl wrote in his post.
So, if user privacy is indeed being taken into consideration, what exactly can this massive amount of YouTube information be used for? A rough analogy is political or consumer polling. The data will be monitored and crunched for use as evidence; hypothetical scenarios include proving that new YouTube users immediately start watching pirated content--thus implying that it's a big draw for the massive video site--and proving that there are users who watch exclusively or primarily pirated content.
The source added that Viacom is looking into user anonymization technology, so that even the low-level personal data that could be exposed--say, YouTube user handles that contain a person's real name--is not accessible to anyone.
Additionally, the source explained that the judge's decision cannot be directly applied to any of the other online video sites, from Veoh to DailyMotion. Because the case has been handled in a trial court, the decision cannot be used as precedent unless it ends up in a court of appeals.
But DeLong said that it likely will have broader implications for Web video regardless. "This is one of those cases in which the YouTube litigation is going to pretty much determine the law on this issue, so whatever happens here is going to be applied by every other website," he explained. "Whoever wins this case and whatever issues come up, this will go to a court of appeals. It will be a powerful precedent."
Viacom released an official statement later on Thursday consistent with what CNET News.com had learned earlier. "YouTube and Google have put us in this position by continuing to defend their illegal and irresponsible conduct and profiting from copyright infringement, when they could be implementing the safe and legal user generated content experience they promise," the statement read.
"Viacom has not asked for and will not be obtaining any personally identifiable information of any user," the statement continued. "Any information that we or our outside advisors obtain--which will not include personally identifiable information--will be used exclusively for the purpose of proving our case against You Tube and Google, will be handled subject to a court protective order and in a highly confidential manner."
Google, meanwhile, released a statement that said the company is "asking Viacom to respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymize the logs before producing them under the court's order.
This post was expanded at 10:15 a.m. PT.