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September 3, 2008

Signing Away Your Rights with Google Chrome

Derrick Harris

People have referred to the Google Chrome browser as a cloud operating system, and that characterization seems accurate. For personal users running advanced Web apps and enterprise users accessing (or hoping to access) cloud services alike, this a promising proposition, no doubt. However, it’s not all roses: Google’s quest to store your personal data — and even to own content transmitted via Chrome — is a little troubling to me. In fact, these concerns mirror those skeptics are asking about cloud computing, in general.

The Pros

  • It’s minimalist. For those of us who hate working with aggressive, in-your-face interfaces, Chrome is the answer.In fact, it doesn’t even include the seemingly ubiquitous Windows menu bar.
  • It’s app-focused. Google even built V8, described by the company as “a more powerful JavaScript engine, to power the next generation of web applications that aren’t even possible in today’s browsers.” As the SaaS ecosystem continues to expand, a browser that maximizes performance will be a hot commodity.
  • It’s cloud computing-ready. Not only does V8 promise better performance for Java-based cloud applications, but each tab opens in a “sandbox” model. This means that if a site or application crashes Tab A, Tab B (ostensibly running on its own VM) is not affected. So, if I’m taking a break from porting an application to EC2 or GoGrid (or doing any other cloud-based tasks) to do some nefarious Web surfing in another tab, my legitimate work won’t be for naught when the latter activity inevitably causes a browser freeze. This, in fact, is the very promise of multi-tenanted cloud architectures: your applications and your VMs are isolated from other users’, and whatever they’re doing won’t affect you at all.

    The combination of sandbox tabs and better application performance is a great start if Google intends for Chrome to be the OS when, as some experts predict, all computing will be done via the Web.

The Cons

  • It’s new-fangled. Let’s be honest: we get used to things looking and functioning in certain ways, and change can be scary. For the time being, I think I’ll stick to Firefox and utilize Google’s suite of Web services via that browser.
  • It’s advertising-focused. I keep my e-mails and my Web searches pretty tame, so I’m willing to put up with the targeted advertising (which I barely ever even notice) with GMail and Google Search. When it comes to my browser, however, I’m a little less welcoming of targeted advertising. Being a member of the publishing world, I understand that advertising pays the bills, but that doesn’t mean I want Google using, in any way, personal data that I did not specifically send across a Google service. The browser always has been a relatively neutral party in the Web experience, but no amount of Web history deletions will erase the stockpiles of personal data that Google has stored.
As Google itself says:

17.1 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.

17.2 The manner, mode and extent of advertising by Google on the Services are subject to change without specific notice to you.

17.3 In consideration for Google granting you access to and use of the Services, you agree that Google may place such advertising on the Services.

  • Google wants your intellectual property. Seriously. Here’s the clause:
11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. 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.

Yes, you still retain your rights, but Google also has free reign to do whatever it wishes with any content you submit, post or display on or through Chrome. I’ll spare you an intellectual property lecture, but what this means is Google has rights over your copyrighted material that go against pretty much every facet of IP law. Save for the limited “fair use” universe, other parties simply do not have the right, without consent (and, often, a royalty agreement), to use your copyrighted material for their commercial gain. Unless, of course, you sign that right away …

One of the main concerns about cloud computing is that your data is being processed and, possibly, stored on someone else’s infrastructures. Users have to trust that the third party will not only keep that data safe from intruders, but also that the service provider will not access and use the data for its own purposes. Yes, these services likely have agreements stating they will do no such thing, but even planting the seed of such practices could make leery enterprises head right back for their own servers. To the extent Chrome is considered a “cloud operating system,” the notion of Google claiming rights over your content could cast a shadow over the whole universe, especially App Engine. And what if you use Chrome to do proprietary work in other cloud services? Can Google somehow assert rights over that content?

I know Google counts some smart lawyers among its ranks, but I sense some legal challenges on the horizon if this clause sticks around.