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7/7/2008
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Google's Turn As 'Privacy Defender' In Viacom Suit Only Partly Credible

The tension in Google's simultaneous desire to collect the world's data while protecting the world's privacy can be seen in YouTube's user fight.

In response to a judge's order in Viacom's copyright lawsuit against Google's YouTube to reveal log files showing user viewing habits, Google has asked Viacom to accept anonymized data.

"Since IP addresses and usernames aren't necessary to determine general viewing practices, our lawyers have asked their lawyers to let us remove that information before we hand over the data they're seeking," YouTube wrote on its blog on July 4.

Google's concern, shared by cyberrights advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is that turning over IP addresses and associated information contained in YouTube's log files compromises user privacy.

Ever since the press reported on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's video rental records, an event that led to the passage of the federal Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988, video viewing records have been deemed to deserve special privacy protection. The judge in the Viacom case, however, rejected the argument that video viewing on YouTube is protected under the act.

Viacom last week offered assurance that it would not seek or obtain any personally identifiable information about any YouTube user, a promise that seems to preclude the possibility that Viacom might use its trove of user data to launch its own Recording Industry Association of America-style copyright lawsuits against individuals.

On the face of it, Google appears to be reprising the hero role it pioneered in "Gonzales v. Google Inc.," the lawsuit filed in early 2006 by then U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales against Google to compel the company to turn over a massive amount of data from its search index. Google resisted the government's overreaching demand for data and in so doing came out looking like a champion of privacy.

But as a defender of data, Google isn't always quick on the draw. On Friday, it finally caught up with Microsoft and Yahoo by adding a privacy link to its home page, after being urged to do so by privacy groups in early June. And ever since Google launched the Street View feature in Google Maps in May 2007, the company has been busy blurring the faces of people photographed by Street View cameras, not to mention erasing data about certain towns and Army bases, to address complaints that the product violates people's privacy.

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