Tech Law


Would You Let Your Data Sleep Over at Google’s House?

A lingering cloud of Google vaporware finally condensed recently into an actual product. Google Drive has been a subject of speculation for years, but now the company’s own cloud storage service is here for real.

Google Drive lets anyone store a few gigabytes worth of data on Google’s servers. The data can be anything you want — photos, music, videos, word documents, secret dossiers, encrypted transmissions, whatever. You can upload it to Google’s system for safe keeping, then use a name and password to access it later from your computer or just about any other computer. Google’s also made a Drive app for Android, and an iOS version is in the works.

Online storage is a crowded market, and the amount of free space a provider offers each user is a major element of competition. For Google Drive, that’s 5 GB — less than what you get with Microsoft’s Skydrive, which was recently updated, but more than what Dropbox gives you. Of course you can always buy more, and with Google Drive, that means paying anywhere from $2.50 per month for 25 GB to $50 per month for a terabyte-sized storage locker.

But almost as soon as Google Drive landed, it started getting the side-eye from those concerned about the protection and privacy of their data. Google has a lousy track record with privacy advocates who are concerned about how far a reach the company has into the private information of its users — their email, their search history, their address books, map searches and more. Now Google’s offering to hang onto users’ actual files — and probably their most valuable files, since one of the main benefits of using online storage is to keep the good stuff safe in case your computer’s stolen or destroyed.

The fine print in Google’s user agreement seemed to confirm their worst suspicions: It could be easily interpreted to mean that anything someone uploads to Google Drive automatically becomes the intellectual property of the company. How would you like to owe royalties to Google if you happen to save your mega-hit series of young-adult novels on its cloud? Or see those private photos you took in Hawaii last year become the inspiration for a Google Doodle?

Google responded by ensuring users it’s not a plot to trick the world into owning all creative media. It won’t use your personal photos or other data in ads, so long as you don’t make it public. The rights it reserves to do things like “reproduce,” “modify,” “publicly perform,” “publicly display” and “distribute” are all for the sake of doing what Google Drive is designed to do — store your data and give it back to you wherever you happen to be.

In fact, this part of Google Drive’s terms of service is just like the ToS that applies to all sorts of other Google properties, like Gmail. Technically it sounds like a charter for a massive IP con job, but in reality it would be suicide for Google to try to claim actual ownership over a user’s data. Maybe the company could have provided a little straight talk alongside the legalese, though.

But aside from that, your data isn’t completely safe from prying eyes on a service like Google Drive. For example, if law enforcement wants to see someone’s stored data, Google is in the habit of obeying search warrants and court orders. That might seem obvious, but some online storage companies’ ToS statements give the impression that they’d actually refuse to fork it over. And others automatically encrypt all the data they store before it even reaches their servers, so if the police or anyone else takes that data without the user’s consent, it’s just one big plate of scrambled eggs.

Listen to the podcast (13:03 minutes).

Ready for Round 2

We’ve just finished up Week 2 of Oracle’s courtroom battle against Google, and it appears both sides have scored a few points.

The fight centers on Java, a technology originally developed by Sun Microsystems. Google used parts of Java to create its Android mobile OS, and it did so without a license. Google claims it did nothing wrong — that it used parts of Java that should require no license. Then Oracle bought Sun and sued Google for what it said was misuse of Java code.

And the battle rages on. This week Google Chairman Eric Schmidt took the stand. Until about a year ago, he served as Google’s CEO. He also happens to be a former employee of Sun Microsystems and remained in close contact with top Sun executives long after leaving the company. He testified that while he was CEO of Google, the topic of Android’s use of Java came up during conversations he had with two Sun CEOs — Scott McNealy and Jonathan Schwartz. Those two may have had different ideas about just how much permission Google needed to use Java the way it was using it, but Schmidt said he was left with the impression that things were OK the way they were. Nobody was suing anyone, at least.

Later, Schwartz took the stand and backed up Schmidt’s testimony by telling the court that when he was heading up Sun, the company did not consider Java APIs to be proprietary or protected IP.

But Oracle landed a few shots also. The company picked up on testimony from Andy Rubin, the top Googler in charge of Android. Rubin acknowledged that back when Sun was still independent, Google tried to work out a partnership with the company that would have officially secured the right to use Java. But why would Google go to that trouble if it didn’t think it needed a license?

That admission dovetails with an email brought up earlier in the trial in which a Google engineer told top executives that a license would be needed. And it plays into Oracle’s strategy of portraying Google as a company aware that it was doing something wrong and ready to deal with the consequences.

A Song of IP and Ire

A twisted web of alliances is forming among some of the biggest tech companies in the U.S., and patents are the currency of choice for all players involved.

But unlike the mobile device patent wars, which have erupted into courtroom battles all over the world, these patent standoffs have to do with website design and construction patents. They’ve also resulted in just one actual lawsuit so far — Yahoo vs. Facebook.

Weeks ago, Yahoo stormed Facebook’s gates with accusations it had violated 10 patents. The move was widely criticized as an overly aggressive and offensive use of a portfolio, but Yahoo maintained it was only serving its investors by protecting its IP. At the time, Facebook was poorly armed for a fight. It had never put much effort into building up ramparts against an attack like this. At the end of 2011, for example, it reportedly had only a few dozen patents to its name.

But it did have plenty of cash, so it went shopping. First it bought hundreds of patents from IBM’s gigantic stash of IP. Then it launched a counterclaim against Yahoo, claiming 10 patents of its own had been violated.

More recently, Facebook also paid $550 million for 650 more patents from Microsoft — in fact, it bought most of the patents Microsoft purchased from AOL just a couple of weeks ago.

When Microsoft originally bought those patents from AOL, it paid about $1 billion for 800 of them, so it’s unclear if this was a profitable “Flip That IP” move for Redmond. But at the time, one popular theory was that it was gearing up for war with Google. And that’s still a possibility, but it seems Microsoft also wants to help protect Facebook — a sizable chunk of which it owns.

Facebook’s rivalry with Google isn’t quite at the same level of intensity as Microsoft’s, but it’s growing, so Redmond probably wouldn’t be unhappy to see the patents it sold act as leverage in the social network’s favor if a legal fight ever erupts between it and the search engine.

There’s also the uncomfortable matter of Yahoo. Facebook could be even better equipped to deal with that lawsuit thanks to the patents Microsoft sold it, so to Yahoo, that makes Microsoft an arms dealer to its enemy. But thanks to an agreement made after Microsoft failed to buy out Yahoo a few years ago, the two are also partners in search services. Awkward.

The tangle of coalitions and conflicts is piling up as though George R.R. Martin wrote the script, and the tension could produce yet another round of incredibly bitter patent suits. Then there’s the issue of licensing — throughout most of these deals, the seller retains a license to use the patent, which protects it from litigation should friends one day become enemies. So, all it’ll take is a couple more of these billion-dollar patent pass-offs and everyone will have a license for everything. Peace on Earth.

Still Got the Fever

July 9 could be a very frustrating day for a few hundred thousand Internet users. There will be much pounding of keyboards, cursing of routers and tearing out of hair. Some people might even go outside for a few hours.

It’s all thanks to a gang of malicious hackers who used Internet trickery to redirect users to bogus websites and get rich off ill-gotten clicks. The malware they spread around to pull this off was called “DNS Changer.” Once infected, a computer’s DNS settings were changed, and every time that computer hopped online, it got there by way of a rogue server controlled by the hackers. Then, instead of seeing the sites they wanted to look at, users were shown a bunch of ads.

The good news is that this particular racket isn’t going on anymore. The FBI nailed most of the people running the scam.

The bad news has to do with the way the FBI has tried to clean up the mess these crooks left behind. Even though they were busted, they’d still managed to draw hundreds of thousands of computers into their web, and those computers were still infected with malware. So the FBI cleaned out the servers the hackers had been running and turned them into honest machines. Now when an infected computer tries to get online, it still goes to one of these formerly rogue servers, but it immediately gets relayed to the actual Internet, not a never-ending stream of sleazy ads.

But that won’t last forever. The measure was always intended to be temporary, and now the FBI says July 9 is the day it pulls the plug on those cleaned-up servers it’s been keeping. And when that happens, computers that are still infected won’t be able to access the Internet at all. So the bureau is urging everyone to run a quick diagnosis using a free, easy tool it’s provided. No downloads, no questions asked, just click the link to get a simple yes/no answer to whether you’re infected and info on how to fix it if you are.

Better to do this sooner rather than later — obviously if you can’t access the Internet, you won’t be able to get the fix-it info.

Gold Diggers of the 21st Century

It takes a lot of motivation to get people to actually go out into space. I’m not talking about the astronauts themselves. They’re always eager to get blasted into orbit. But putting together the whole production — the research, the planning, the tests, the equipment — it’s all a huge amount of resources and time that needs to be invested, mostly by people who won’t experience going into space at all. So the payout has to be spectacular.

The human urge to explore is a motivator in itself, but that desire will only get you so far. On top of that, you’ll sometimes need something more, like the chance to peacefully one-up a Cold War enemy. Money works very well also, of course, and that’s the motivation behind various private space agencies getting ready to charge big bucks for a short jaunt into the sky.

Money is also what’s on the minds of the founders of an outfit called Planetary Resources. It’s a group that’s right now looking at space the same way 49ers were looking at California 160 years ago: There’s gold in them there asteroids, and Planetary Resources wants to go prospecting.

Its idea is to send unmanned, robotic ships all the way out to the Asteroid Belt and dig up gold and platinum.

The actual plans are a little more complicated than that, of course. They’d also be outrageously expensive to pull off given the current state of spaceflight technology. The group acknowledges that innovations in cost-cutting are a top priority for now, and “space miner” isn’t going to be an actual job any time soon.

Even if things go well for Planetary Resources, don’t expect the world to be awash in gold and platinum 100 years from now. In fact, bringing untold amounts of precious metals down to Earth’s surface doesn’t even appear to be the main goal. It’s all far-ahead speculation at this point, but setting up a mining system that spans the solar system could be a catalyst for something more noble than lining pockets with space rocks: developing actual off-world colonies and making them self-sufficient. With an infrastructure in place to gather various materials from places other than Earth, permanent establishments in space could become a more financially viable concept.

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