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Friday, September 19, 2008

Google Launches Highly Anticipated Chrome Browser; the Tech Community Reacts

by Sara Skinner, MTTLR Associate editor

Google launched a beta version of its new Chrome web browser on September 2nd. Prior to launch, Google released a comic book depicting the various engineering and design decisions that went into the browser. The result of all these innovations, Google claims, is a safer, smarter, faster way to surf the internet - but industry members and community watchdogs are raising security and privacy concerns.

One issue that plagues virtually all beta-version software is security problems that don’t emerge until the software is disseminated to a large number of users. The comic documents Google's efforts to eliminate as many security flaws as possible before launch by employing a “Chrome bot” to automatically test the browser more thoroughly. Google has also responded swiftly to address the emerging issues after launch, and released their first security update within a few days after the initial launch (although they were not forthcoming about which issues the update had addressed.)

One major source of concern for privacy advocates is the browser’s Omnibox, a multi-purpose search box/URL input field. The Omnibox helps users fine-tune their search and browse experience, but it also constantly sends information about users’ surfing and searching habits back to Google’s headquarters. About two percent of data sent back will be stored with the IP address of the computer that sent it. Users can avoid this by surfing Incognito (a privacy mode that turns off cookie storage) or by disabling the auto-suggest feature, but privacy advocates are worried about the amount of personal information being handled by Google — which the average user may not even realize is being collected.

The Terms of Service for the new browser have not been without controversy, either. When initially launched, Chrome’s terms granted Google extensive rights to user content. Google acknowledged that such restrictive terms were part of a standard boilerplate and shouldn’t have been included. The Terms of Service have since been revised and no longer grant user content rights to Google.

Some of the loudest opposition to the Chrome browser’s privacy practices is coming from privacy advocates in Europe where a user’s IP address is considered personal data. While Google has responded that its privacy data retention is governed by US law, it agreed to shorten its search bar IP retention policy to nine months. It is also working on a way to anonymize IP addresses and cookies when users search in the Google Omnibox.

Screen shot from September 14, 2008 (http://www.google.com/googlebooks/chrome/small_02.html).

Scott McCloud & The Google Chrome Team, Google Chrome, Google, (last visited Sept. 14, 2008).
Stephen Shankland, Google Fixes Chrome Vulnerabilities—But Won’t Say Which, Cnet News, Sept. 8, 2008.
Explore Google Chrome Features: Incognito Mode, Google Chrome Help Center, (last visited Sept. 14, 2008).
Ina Fried, EFF: We’re Concerned About Google’s Omnibox, Cnet News, Sept. 3, 2008.
Ina Fried, Be Sure to Read Chrome’s Fine Print, Cnet News, Sept. 2, 2008.
Google Tweaks Chrome License Text, BBC News, Sept. 4, 2008.
Google, Google Chrome Terms of Service, Google, (last visited Sept. 14, 2008).
Peter Fleischer, Response to the Article 29 Working Party Opinion on Data Protection Issues Related to Search Engines, Google, Sept. 8, 2008.
Kurt Opsahl, Google Cuts IP Retention to Nine Months, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sept. 9, 2008, (last visited September 14, 2008).
Ellen Nakashima, Google Promises Privacy Fixes in Its Chrome Browser, The Washington Post, Sept. 9, 2008.

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