Monday, May 16, 2005

Google's Web Accelerator

Google's famous motto - "Don't be Evil" - has lost some of its shine lately. A prime target for critics is the new Web Accelerator: a browser add-in that runs all your web browsing - not just your searches - through Google's servers. The pay-off is faster browsing through technical wizardry including lots of caching by Google. The downsides? Privacy problems and dubious legality.

Jeff Jarvis doesn't like this from a copyright point of view:

It's one matter when the search engine caches a page you can't get anymore; that's a copyright violation but an all-in-all benign one in the sense that it's only giving you content you could not otherwise see (no different from, say, the web archive).

But it's quite another matter for Google to get in the way of serving current content. This means that the page is served from Google rather than from a publisher's server, which means that the publisher cannot count the traffic and serve targeted and dynamic advertising.

It also means that Google is copying content on its servers and serving it from there and thus is violating copyright.

And it means that Google is in a position to snoop on data on consumers' usage of sites that Google does not own: That is, Google will know what the consumers on my site are doing better than I will for these "accelerated" pages.

Karl-Friedrich Lenz doesn't like the data retention implications:
I have been opposed to any large-scale collection of Internet traffic data for years.

There is a heated battle going on about exactly this question right now in Europe. Enemies of freedom are gaining influence and want to turn the Internet into one big surveillance instrument. Under these circumstances, it is absolutely unacceptable to try building the world's largest Internet traffic data collection under the misleading excuse of speeding up web surfing. This calls for active resistance to Google, which deserves to be put completely out of business for this move.

He's also analysed the data protection, copyright and liability issues from an EU perspective, in a very interesting post that deserves to be quoted in full:
However, this "web accelerator" is clearly another new level of privacy violation, even if it only affects those who choose to live under the Google searchlights just to get a few downloads done faster.

Therefore, I will take a few minutes to look at whether it might be illegal under current European law.

There are three potential problems.

One is copyright. The service seems to be working, among other things, by using a "prefetch" command. That is, Google is downloading content the user might possibly require next in advance.

This downloading is a reproduction, just as the illegal cache of the whole Web Google is doing is a reproduction.

That means it needs an exception or limitation, since obviously Google has no licenses.

The only exception possible is Article 5 Number 1 a) of the 2001 Information Society Copyright Directive.

That exception requires that the "prefetch" is an "integral and essential part of a technological process whose sole purpose is to enable a transmission in a network between third parties in a network".

The "prefetch" does not enable a transmission in all cases where the user does not choose to actually use the prefetched file. In all those cases, it adds only unnecessary burdens to the whole Internet traffic load. Therefore, it seems to be open to doubt if the exception extends this far.

The next potential problem is data protection. Article 6 paragraph 1 of the 2002 Electronic Communications Data Protection Directive says:

"1. Traffic data relating to subscribers and users processed and stored by the provider of a public communications network or publicly available electronic communications service must be erased or made anonymous when it is no longer needed for the purpose of the transmission of a communication without prejudice to paragraphs 2, 3 and 5 of this Article and Article 15(1)."

Since Google "logs page requests" and does not seem to delete them when the communication is finished, all that keeps them from violating Article 6 is the anonymity of the user. However, since the pages logged may contain personally identifiable information, that defense is rather weak in most cases.

The third potential problem is that of liability for illegal content.

Under Article 13 of the 2000 Electronic Commerce Directive, an exception for liability is granted for "Caching".

However, in this case the exception is clearly restricted to cases where the cache is for the purpose of making more efficient the information's onward transmission to other recipients of the service upon their request. With "prefetched" pages there is no user request.

So if any of the billions of prefetched pages on some user's computer turns out to be illegal in that particular country, there is nothing to stop Google's liability for delivering that particular content.

Summing up, there seem to be some potential legal problems with the "web accelerator" service under European law, especially regarding the "prefetched" pages.

However, the moral repulsiveness of turning the searchlights on your users, as opposed to having them turned on the web content, depends in no way on the finer legal points mentioned above.

The Inside Google Blog, meanwhile, doesn't like the fact that the Web Accelerator is apparently serving up private information to the wrong people:
See, Google isn't serving web pages faster, its serving other people's versions of the web page faster. What does that mean? Try using Web Accelerator on a forum site, one with lots of geeks who love Google and probably already have Web Accelerator installed. Why, if you're lucky, you'll be logged in as someone else, as the folks at discovered. The posters in that forum discovered that most of the times they refreshed the page, they were logged in as a different person, seeing their friend's control panel for the forums


Installing Accelerator will, at some point, let you into a private area you shouldn't be seeing. Maybe it'll be a control panel or options area for a logged in user. Maybe it'll be a porn site with password protection. Maybe it will be a private Microsoft message board where developers discuss trade secrets regarding the next version of Windows. It will happen, and when it does, I expect screenshots.

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