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Comcast, Google Can Publish Users' Email Contents

By Richard Adhikari
Aug 2, 2017 4:21 PM PT

Comcast's Terms of Service for its Xfinity Internet service gives it, its agents, suppliers and affiliates the right to "reproduce, publish, distribute and display" the content worldwide. It also lets third parties copy, republish or distribute material posted or transmitted using Xfinity Internet.

This would include confidential information sent by a company employee or an independent contractor to authorized persons over the service, independent security analyst Randy Abrams warned Tuesday.

The "excessively broad language" of Comcast's ToS "should be of concern," Abrams told the E-Commerce Times.

"There are no limitations or privacy controls with ISPs," he pointed out.

"The revised language in our Residential Services Agreement is meant to make it clear that we are expressly authorized by the customer to send around what the customer wants to send around where we are the conduit or intermediary," said Comcast spokesperson Jenni Moyer.

"We are not taking their content," she told the E-Commerce Times.

It's not just Comcast. Google's ToS gives it -- and the third parties it works with -- a "worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works, communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and distribute" content users upload, submit, store, send or receive to or through its services.

This license continues even if a user stops using Google's services -- but the rights then apply to the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving Google's services, and developing new ones.

Where Google and Comcast Differ

Some Google services may offer users ways to access and remove content that has been provided to them, and some have terms or settings that narrow the scope of Google's use of the content users submit to those services.

"I have availed myself of these limitations at times," Abrams said.

Google "doesn't scan all traffic emanating from your computer," he pointed out. "Most importantly, I do not have to use Google services. I can use 00000DuckDuckGo instead of [Google Search]. I can use Tutanota for email."

Google "doesn't have protected monopoly status in any market," Abrams observed. "Due to government-granted regional monopolies, cable Internet service has one choice and no competition in many respects."

The Danger of Sweeping Rights

The way Comcast's and Google's ToSes are worded "suggests that even if you store information with them they can use and repurpose it," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

The wording suggests that these services own the content sent through their services, which "would make defending intellectual property nearly impossible," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Users "would want to encrypt pretty much everything in order to protect it," Enderle suggested, "but even if you do so, these firms would still have rights to the content if they could prove you used their services to store or transmit it."

But Everybody's Doing It

Like Google and Comcast, Facebook asserts that users give it a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free worldwide license to use any IP content such as photos and videos they post on or in connection with Facebook, subject to their privacy and application settings.

This IP license ends when users delete their IP content or their account unless their content has been shared with others and they haven't deleted it.

The online services' assertion of rights over users' content can be considered the industry norm "and a frightening one," Enderle remarked. If these companies employ users' IP, they "could argue they already had a license to it. Authors and publishers couldn't defend copyrights -- and even patent rights could be considered assigned."

That said, "the contracts are so one-sided that I have severe doubts whether the courts would defend positions like this [in the U.S.]," Enderle said. "It would be like a bank claiming ownership of anything you put in its safe deposit box or had on you when you walked into the bank."

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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