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, new appears to be a good addition to IT's arsenal. But when you read the fine print, you may quickly change your mind.

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 News.com 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."

(Editor's note: This issue has been subsequently addressed by Google, and the Chrome license agreement has been changed.)

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.

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