Orkut pirates privacy and copyright

Microsoft was bashed for less

[Originally appeared in the Dutch net magazine Netkwesties.]

On-line friend networks such as Friendster and Friend-of-a-friend have fallen somewhat out of grace. Orkut however is different. It is soaring: less than a month after it was launched (on January 23), Orkut can boast almost 100.000 members and it seems to be discussed everywhere, both on the net and In Real Life.

The idea behind such friends’ networks is simple. After joining, you describe your interests and particularities such as age, sex and relational status, you make a list of your friends and invite them, and thus you map your social networks onto Friendster or Orkut. After registering you can take a look at the friends of your friends or investigate who else shares your interests. You can invite the new people that you find in this way to become part of your own network and thus create new ties.

That’s basically it. It’s all a tad trite, basically a great way of doing away with your time, although admittedly it must be fun to suddenly find an old friend in this way.

But indeed: Orkut is different. Unlike Friendster or Friend-of-a-friend, it is incredibly hip, and it is especially popular especially amongst the internet savvy. Orkut’s close ties to Google, the internet’s best search engine (Orkut was developed by a Google employee during company hours), may have greatly promoted Orkut’s cool factor: Google doesn’t often affiliate itself with a new toy, so that if it does, it must mean something. Such spill-over of good-will works.

Even when Orkut is different.

All more or less formalised on-line networks depend on databases. Friendster puts your profile together with that of all other Friendsters in a huge file and thus preserves everything that you were willing to spill about yourself: who your friends are, whether you smoke, your favourite films and bands, your political preferences. The sheer amount of private data that is being preserved makes such databases rather sensitive, even though the participants have entered those data themselves. People usually do not mind telling their friends that they have experimented with drugs, but when their mother or boss makes an appearance on that same network, the situation somehow changes.

Basically, it is everybody’s own responsibility to assess how much they want to disclose. Generally, it isn’t very smart to put things on-line which you do not want to be retrievable until kingdom come, be it in a usenet posting on your own web site or in Friendster or Orkut. Anybody participating on the net should be aware that the internet’s collected memory lasts a tad longer than an analogue conversation. On the net, everything is archived and usenet postings and web pages are kept for eternity.

Many of these on-line communities or interfaces, however, also affect other people’s privacy. According to a critical article in The Register of February 10, 2004, Plaxo encourages you to put your whole address book on-line. When a vague acquaintance is a Plaxo member, there is a good chance that your vcard – address, telephone number, mobile, date of birth – is on-line too. Swell: one’s privacy gets compromised because others are naive.

Orkut however takes things a few steps further: it is a real privacy pirate. If an acquaintance were to invite me to join Orkut, Orkut itself reserves the right to retain the data pertaining to me and use them for its own purposes. By now, I am labeled as part of several of Orkut’s circles of friends – I have even received mail for events within these circles – while I am not a member myself. Hence, Orkut ‘knows’ who my friends are, even while I keep my mouth tightly shut.

Besides, Orkut’s architecture provides a wonderful spamming tool. After having joined Orkut, you have the option to mail all your friends in one go; another option is to mail all friends of your friends. A friend of mine who has joined, Paul, has 89 Orkut friends. Not a particularly huge circle in Orkut terms, because people spread invitations like viruses and the lack of more nuanced labels promotes every acquaintance to a friend. (A strategy that quite erodes the meaning of the term friendship. ‘A person is lucky when he has five real friends,’ an acquaintance of mine often states. If Paul would take these 89 Orkut friendships seriously, he and I would never meet again due to his sudden lack of time.)

These 89 Orkut-inflated friends each have their own huge circle. With a simple mail to ‘friends of my friends’, Paul would reach circa 4500 people at once (roughly: 89 time 89, then half the result to account for the double instances). It is a matter of time before spammers abuse this option. More to the point: what on earth is the practical and honest use of an option to mail all ‘friends’ of all your ‘friends’ with one simple click?

Orkut does weird things with such – and all other – mail. Everything that one mails through Orkut, will be kept and preserved. In its privacy policy, Orkut states:


When you invite new members into your network or send messages through the orkut.com service, we collect and maintain the information associated with those messages, including email addresses and content on secure servers.

Any ISP who would remotely consider doing the same, would be slashed and thrashed by all digital rights / civil liberties organisations – and rightfully so. For a number of years already, Europe has been hotly debating data retention of internet traffic. Anybody who cares two hoots about privacy is greatly alarmed by these plans to oblige providers to retain such data: after all, data retention is meant to enable data retrieval. Knowing who mails who when and about what, renders rather detailed information about people: for instance, it means knowing the networks that people participate in. It also means that you can get implied by proxy if a member of your network is a police suspect. For this reason, such information is considered to be highly sensitive and is very much contested.

Orkut does not only store traffic data. It stores all content. Without a time limit. While Orkut does store this data on secured servers (it would only be yet more scandalous if these servers were not secured), the mere storing makes this data retrievable for anybody who manages to secure an authority’s compliance. Isn’t it odd that data retention for ISPs causes huge debate on international platforms, while a company can do so without even causing any digital rights organisation to twitch a muscle?

Or, erm, perhaps that is not too odd. Because members, supporters, founders, financiers and employees of such digital rights and civil liberties organisations themselves have joined Orkut en masse. From Dutch ex-hackers Felipe Rodriquez and Rop Gonggrijp to Electronic Frontier Foundation front man John Perry Barlow, from Esther Dyson to all-time top-15 hacker Julf Helsingius: all are on Orkut and have founded their own Orkut communities: Hippies From Hell, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Hack-tic. Because they were curious. Because it was brought to us by Google. Or because it’s just hip. Or perhaps for the same reason that I have a supermarket loyalty card: because my concerns for privacy diminish when I think I have something to win if I give up my privacy.

Orkut can boast more oddities. In its terms of service, their claims to copyright are explained:


orkut.com’s proprietary rights

By submitting, posting or displaying any Materials on or through the orkut.com service, you automatically grant to us a worldwide, non-exclusive, sublicenseable, transferable, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right to copy, distribute, create derivative works of, publicly perform and display such Materials.

In other words, Orkut claims the rights to anything that its members post or publish through Orkut, be it a photograph of their daughter, a plot for a film that is in the making or an incipient business plan. Orkut claims the eternal, worldwide and royalty-free right to re-publish, perform, display and/or distribute whatever its members mail or mention.

Of course, such a provision would probably not be upheld in court, should Orkut wish to exercise the rights it granted itself and should a user sue Orkut. But the mere fact that Orkut whipped up such a condition for the use of its network is rather remarkable. Through its close affiliation with Google, one would have expected a less Microsoftish, less Disneyesk provision.

Speaking of which: a few years ago Microsoft was planning to issue a .NET passport. .NET passport users would (unwittingly) allow Microsoft to collect information on which sites they visited, whom they mailed, what they bought where. These plans led to a confrontation between Microsoft and the European Commission, who stated that the gathering and storing of such data was illegal. In the end, Microsoft was forced to cancel its .NET passport plans.

Unlike that .NET passport, Orkut is completely voluntary. And unlike Microsoft, Orkut is being used by highly informed civil right activists. That doesn’t only make it more difficult to fight Orkut’s conditions, it also means that Orkut might be our Trojan horse. After all, can EFF and other civil rights’ organisations keep up their complaints about .NET like plans after having joined Orkut so heartily, so massively and so uncritically?


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