Google plays Big Brother

The Chrome browser is spiffy, but it may threaten your privacy.

I'm always happy to see competitive products reach the market, particularly one that might give Microsoft a run for its money.

At first blush, Google's Chrome browser appears to be a good addition to IT's arsenal. But when you read the fine print, you may quickly change your mind.

[ Check out InfoWorld's Special Report for all the news, reviews, and commentary on Google's open source Chrome browser. ]

Scary terms of service: whatever you type, Google owns

A close look at the terms of service that appear before downloading the beta contains a number of worrisome, privacy-related red flags.

(Props to Ina Fried of for noticing this first.)

First, weirdest and scariest is a section of the TOS that appears to give Google the right to use content created in the browser for its own purposes. Here’s what it says:

"By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any content which you submit, post or display on or through, the services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the services and may be revoked for certain services as defined in the additional terms of those services."

Five years ago, that wouldn’t have mattered a bit. But now that the browser is becoming the platform for so much of the work we do -- at home and in the office -- it matters a great deal. If your company uses a browser-based application, does Google then have the right to lift that content for its own purposes? And how do they get their hands on that content? I have no idea.

It's worth remembering that Google already tracks and stores a significant amount of user information, such as the content of e-mail sent via its Gmail system, which is scanned. Searches too are tracked for a number of advertising-related reasons. I have no reason to believe that Google has used any of that information in an underhanded way, but this really does smack of Big Brother and ought to be stopped.

This issue has already gotten some attention and Google may be backpedaling. Here's what the company had to say in an e-mail from Rebecca Ward, senior product counsel for Google Chrome:

"In order to keep things simple for our users, we try to use the same set of legal terms (our Universal Terms of Service) for many of our products. Sometimes, as in the case of Google Chrome, this means that the legal terms for a specific product may include terms that don't apply well to the use of that product. We are working quickly to remove language from Section 11 of the current Google Chrome terms of service. This change will apply retroactively to all users who have downloaded Google Chrome."

Well, good. But we should be sure that Google follows up.

Less freaky than the content issue, but potentially very annoying, is Google's notice that it may use Chrome to serve ads to users:

"Some of the services are supported by advertising revenue and may display advertisements and promotions. These advertisements may be targeted to the content of information stored on the services, queries made through the services or other information."

I'm a grown-up, and I realize that ad revenue is Google's major financial engine. But spending a lot of time on the Web (and who doesn't these days?) already means being subjected to an endless stream of annoying ads. I don't need to see any more, and I bet you don't either.

Having said that, I'm not at all sure that Google will avail itself of that feature, but the company is certainly thinking about it.

Browser wars or platform battle?

It would be very foolish of Google to scare off users. The new browser wasn't launched to get into a market share war with Internet Explorer and Firefox. Indeed, Google remains a key investor in Mozilla. Chrome is an extension of the Google platform, and therein lies its potential significance.

"What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for Web pages and applications, and that's what we set out to build," Google said on the company's official blog. There you have it.

Google has been trying to outflank Microsoft by developing a set of Web-based applications to rival Office and other products. In some instances, it has done terrifically well: Google Earth has set a very high bar for competitors, and Gmail is popular with those who want to avoid Outlook.

Google Docs, though, isn’t even close. Could a browser that was specifically designed to run those applications make a difference? Probably so. But the most interesting area of competition does not lie in a battle between various flavors of documents and spreadsheets. Because Chrome is built on open source, there are huge opportunities for developers to write novel applications and plug-ins for the new browser.

But will you adopt a platform that spies on you?

Cool and useful as those applications may be, users -- particularly those in enterprise IT -- are going to be very concerned about the security of their information if Google persists on snooping, or even proclaiming the right to snoop.

That would be a shame.

Eric Schmidt and company need to drop the Big Brother routine and stick to the business of innovation.

(Disclosure: I own a small number of shares in Microsoft.)

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