Google tightens it’s death-grip on free information

Thanks, Google, For (Screwing) Over A Bunch Of Media Websites

from the nice-of-’em dept

We’ve discussed a few times in the past how Google’s seemingly arbitrary policies are a potential problem for various media companies that often rely on the company. We’ve detailed ridiculous warnings we’ve received because our news stories covered topics that Google deemed offensive, because apparently no one at Google can distinguish between reporting on something offensive and just posting something offensive. We’ve also discussed how Google tends to present itself as a great white monolith to those who run up against its seemingly arbitrary policy decisions where there’s basically no recourse and no human to speak to.

The latest such example of this happened over the long weekend and seems to have impacted plenty of websites — including us. And, yes, part of this is our own damn fault in relying on a service from Google, which we’ve now routed around. The short version is that, many years ago, we signed up with a service from FeedBurner, to manage our RSS feeds. We did so somewhat reluctantly. We had first published an RSS feed back in April of 2001 (along with an apology for being so “late” to the RSS game) and we’d run it ourselves for years. Eventually, FeedBurner added enough features that we felt it was worthwhile to let it run our RSS feed — though that came with promises from the then FeedBurner team that if there were any problems we could easily dump it. Over time, FeedBurner got purchased by Google and subsumed into the Google machine. At some point, a few years ago, anyone still using FeedBurner had all links in those RSS feeds automatically switched to using Google’s URL shortener.

Also, several years back, we used the fact that FeedBurner had a one-click integration with Twitter to easily send all Techdirt stories to Twitter, which has become an important source of traffic. So that’s how it came to be that all of our RSS links and all of our Twitter links had Google shortened links in them. And, yes, go ahead and laugh at us for being this reliant on Google. We should have known better. And we did know better. I’d been meaning to write an article about how the Supreme Court actually used a Google shortened link in a recent decision, leading Parker Higgins from the EFF to point out some serious potential problems with this, including the fact that Google could arbitrarily change where the link goes, or if it goes anywhere at all. That seems… problematic for a Supreme Court citation.

In fact, because of all of this, some libraries (led by Harvard’s Law School Library), set up, which is designed with the promise of allowing “scholars, courts and others to create web citation links that will never break.” It promises to even archive the content of any link, so that if it does break, the content will still be available.

And so, yes, we were totally aware that there were potential issues, and obviously we were aware that Google sometimes makes totally arbitrary decisions that fuck with people and companies who rely on them… but sometimes even when you know all that, if it’s not a priority, you let it slide. And it wasn’t a priority, because we’ve got lots of other stuff going on these days. Well, it wasn’t a priority until yesterday. That’s because yesterday morning when we all got back to work from the long weekend (I was completely disconnected, off camping in the mountains) we had a ton of emails, messages and tweets from Techdirt readers and supporters about how all our links were broken — with every one of them pointing to a page on Google’s site saying that we had violated Google’s terms of service.

So… yeah. For what it’s worth, we received absolutely no notifications from Google about this. No explanation of how we had “violated” their policy. And it was doubly nice of them to do this over a long weekend when we were all off and away, so that nothing worked for multiple days before we had a chance to dump their RSS feed system completely.

And… apparently we were not alone. A bunch of other sites had the exact same experience and there are a bunch of people asking what the hell happened. With no explanation, no notification, Google just made a lot of websites’ RSS and Twitter feeds break completely. And this includes some other high-profile bloggers as well, like Violet Blue.

The leading theory that I’ve seen going around is that Google is actually blocking all links in any FeedBurner feed, because it’s a violation of its own terms of service. Seriously.

That’s because Google’s URL shortener’s terms of service bans “URL re-directors” and it appears that the genius engineers at Google have decided that Google-run FeedBurner is nothing more than a URL re-director and killed off everyone’s links without notice or explanation. This despite the fact that they’re the same damn company and that FeedBurner unilaterally moved everyone’s RSS feed to use links in the first place.

Bravo, guys.

Meanwhile, despite lots of sites complaining, and people reaching out, the Great White Monolith remained silent. Well, until an hour or so ago — just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, after having reached out to multiple people at Google, I heard back from someone saying that this was a mistake that had been “fixed.” There’s still no official explanation of why it happened. No explanation of why no one at Google seemed to notice that all of its FeedBurner feeds were throwing up errors on every link due to Google’s own use of its own URL shortener. How that could last for five days while a bunch of sites that relied on the product were left with no recourse wasn’t explained either.

So, yeah, we’ve moved our RSS feed away from FeedBurner/Google. And you can argue that we should have done so a while ago — and you’re probably right. But, really, can’t a company as big as Google figure out how not to fuck over a bunch of media websites that make use of its services?