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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.

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 statement about the information it's providing to Viacom. The blog post says YouTube strongly opposes Viacom's motion because it wants to protect user privacy. At the same time, the blog post says an IP address can't identify anyone.

"You should know, IP addresses identify a computer, not the person using it," the blog post says. "It's not possible to determine your identity solely based on your IP address. Rather, an IP address can reveal what geographic area you're connecting from, or which Internet service provider you're using."

While this true in the literal sense -- an IP address is associated with a computer rather than a person -- it's misleading because it's often possible to identify someone solely based on his or her IP address. It's particularly easy to do so when a broadband subscriber who lives alone is paying for a fixed IP address.

But more to the point, Google's split personality about data is revealed in its simultaneous effort to protect IP addresses and to assert that they don't actually qualify as personal information.

Not that this represents a new contorted position for Google -- in a post to Google's public policy blog in February, Google software engineer Alma Whitten asked, "Are IP addresses personal?" and concluded that the answer was too technical to provide policy makers with a simple answer. Google is hoping to find some wiggle room here because if the European Union answers "yes" to that question, the company will probably face further privacy regulation abroad.

As much as Google enjoys sticking up for its users, it also has to defend its business model, which depends heavily on sifting through the data generated by its users. And perhaps that tension is for the best: Without Google's willingness to push the privacy envelope, to say nothing of the copyright envelope, Internet users would have far fewer innovative services available to them.

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