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Online privacy – Viacom drives a coach and horses through it

By on July 4, 2008

Viacom has just won a pivotal legal battle which may spell the end of anonymity on the web.

In a landmark decision, a US judge in a federal court in New York has ruled that Google must hand over the logging records of every video ever watched on Youtube. The purpose is to help Viacom determine if individuals prefer to watch high-quality but pirated content or the amateur videos with which youtube originally made its name.

The logging records include:

“for each instance a video is watched, the unique “login ID” of the user who watched it, the time when the user started to watch the video, the internet protocol address other devices connected to the internet use to identify the user’s computer (“IP address”), and the identifier for the video.”

It is possible that this information is not personally identifiable. For example, if you use a login name that is not your real name or a name that you use elsewhere, and your IP address is dynamic (ie randomly assigned to you by your internet service provider every time to you connect to the web, rather than permanently assigned to you).

But that is only a possibility. For millions of people, Viacom will have a complete record of every video they have ever watched on youtube.

Viacom is alive to the potential to alienate consumers. Although the judge has ordered the handing over of information which is likely to contain personally identifiable information on at least some YouTube users, Viacom has stated that it has not asked for and will not get any personally identifiable information. Which presumably means that it can’t get any IP addresses, since many of these qualify.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to support Google in his opinion that the videos you watch are deeply personal and deserving of the highest protection.

The case is worth watching for anyone who is building a database of users for online games, especially if there are user-generated content (UGC) options. A proportion of UGC is likely to be IP-infringing (even if it is just the use of a Half Life lamda as a forum avatar). THis ruling potentially gives IP owners the right to demand from you information on all your customers and their actions just in case they have infringed and IP rights. That is a massive infringement of civil liberties AND a huge amount of commercially sensitive information being given away.

I think that this case, which has ramifications across the entire Internet, will run and run, because the stakes for those involved are so high.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com