IP Rights?

Banning Opera, part III

In the great debate – or ruckus – about the reasons for banning Opera users from visiting web sites, the point is this: Unregistered Opera browsers using targeted ad banners from Google are (mis)using the content on the web pages without the owners consent. The targeting means that competitors may be advertised, or even identical ads to the ones in the web pages may be shown. But it is the use of their content that seems to make some web masters ire, from what I’ve read in the comments here and in the thread in the Opera forums.

So I’ll concentrate on how the content of the web pages is used.

First up is Opera. How does this browser use the content? Well – it does parse the formatting commands in the document to show it as it is described. Just like a browser is supposed to do, and just like any other browser do. It doesn’t analyse the content to extract a meaning out of it, nor does it find any keywords to describe what it is about. When it has rendered the content as instructed, Opera does nothing more with it. In this way, it behaves just like any other browser.

But it does something more, even if it’s finished with the web page and doesn’t do more with that. It does send the URI to Google, saying “Hi, this is where I am now. What do you want to show in your own space in the browser interface?”

Google is the one indexing the pages, the one extracting keywords from the pages to discover what it is about. That’s why so many have answered that Google is the one to blame, and the one to go after. Some agree that yes, Google is doing these webmasters wrong, and they should find a solution. Others aren’t quite that convinced. Let’s take it in more detail.

First of all, Google has just as much right to traverse the Internet as any other, search engines and humans. And web masters have their rights to block search engines from all or parts of their sites. Google uses its rights to traverse and index the pages on the net, except the pages it’s asked not to index.

Secondly, what is Google actually doing? It does just what you’re doing right now: It reads pages, find the meaning in them, and can use what it has learned later on. Actually you, being a sentient being, does a much better job out of finding the meaning in the texts you read. Thus, you can do a much better job out of using what you’ve learned from my (or any other) pages than Google can.

Let’s say you do. You use what you’ve read on my pages for your own good, maybe even earn money on it. Are you allowed to do this, is it legal? Well, as long as you’re not just copying my stuff or haven’t signed a non disclosure agreement with me to get access to my pages, sure – it’s perfectly legal. Nor are there any ethical problems. The pages is available for anyone to read and possibly learn from.

If you had used a computer program to distill the information from my pages in some way, before you read the result, would the situation have changed? No, not really. Even if the process was completely computerised; reading, distilling the information, act on what’s learned – it still would be just as legal. That’s a description of how Google works, too. It reads my pages, it distill the information to find relevant keywords to describe the content, and act on what it has learned by showing relevant ads. (At least try to – for me personally it has been quite a lot of blog-related ads, unrelated to the content… But as I said, you are doing a much better job of understanding the meaning than Google. ;-))

So – is Google using my content to show ads? Well – it is using my content somewhere in the process. To use the content, you must be able to understand it, too. Thus, Google is using my content when it is distilling keywords from it. Just as you use my content to learn what it is about when reading it. When you use what you’ve learned you’re not using my content anymore – but can the same be said about Google when it use the keywords to show ads?

My initial response is no, it use what it has learned. But if I would say yes, how would my content be used? There’s no trace of it in the ads, nor can I find it any other place. True – it is in Google’s cache – but it’s also in the cache on your computer. That doesn’t mean you’re using it. So again – my second response is also no. Google use my content to learn what it is about – a use I’ve allowed – but not in the process of showing ads. And – do Google combine information from different pages, even different sites, to serve as relevant ads as possible? In that case Google use more than the information on the single pages to decide relevancy.

The combination of Opera and Google Ads – does that change anything? Well, let’s see.

It’s clear that ads in Opera itself may be in competition to ads on the web pages. While competition isn’t always wanted, it’s not a problem either. What some see as a problem, is the way the ads are picked: “Our content is used, without our consent, to serve targeted ads directly in competition to our own ads.” Those who have signed up for Google Adsense may even discover that there are identical ads in both Opera and the web pages.

Now, we know that no content is reproduced in any way when Google shows the ads. As previously argued, Google reads the pages and extracts information to learn what the content is about – which is how Google use the pages – and then use what it has learned to show ads. That usage has been allowed. Webmaster who have signed up with Google for using Adsense on their pages (such as I have) have even allowed this explicitly.

Of course, even if Google is doing everything legally, it doesn’t mean that no one is frustrated over not having control over what Google does with what it has learned. Therefore we can hear people trying to claim more rights than they have (something that’s not too unusual elsewhere either, unfortunately.) But again, neither Google nor Opera is doing something wrong.

What’s left then is, what can be done to please those who do protest, and is it worth it?

Opera has been made the scapegoat here, so what are they asked, and what can they do? They are asked to either make it possible to identify those who use unregistered browsers, showing targeted ads (read: Help webmasters to block Opera users) or to read and act on a meta-tag (or similar) that says not to show any targeted ads. The first option should be unacceptable. The second – asks Opera to do things browsers doesn’t do. It’s possible, but not necessarily easy. Is it worth it, to please those who don’t like what Google do in its space in Opera? So far, Opera doesn’t think so.

Google is the one who is responsible for the ads and which ones are shown. Google is the one part to blame, should there be any to blame at all. I know Google has been contacted about this concern, but I have no idea how the problem was presented. But Google didn’t want to do anything about it, as they have a contract with Opera. Still, it’s Google that has the key to it all – maybe if it’s presented correctly, Google will agree that there is a conflict of interest they should address?

In any case, the problem isn’t a case of someone doing something wrong or unethical, merely a conflict of interest. If something should be done, it would be to create goodwill. And if someone should do anything about it, the most logically choice would be Google, that has the control over the ads – anything else would just be patches, and there could be many of them, with a potential struggle to get them in place.

PS. The other side of this problem is the webmasters who block Opera users from visiting their sites. It has been said that anyone are free to block whoever they want, and that it only would create a bad reputation for themselves. But is this correct? Not about the bad reputation, but that anyone can block whoever they want? Or does that depend on what type of web site it is? Some countries have regulations that says that certain types of web sites should be accessible, i.e. available to everyone…