Orkut pirates privacy and copyright -
Microsoft was bashed for less
Netkwesties, February 20, 2004
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
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
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 frontman 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?
Copyright Karin Spaink.
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