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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

July 7, 2008

4 Min Read

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. 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.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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