Cloud Services as Personal Conduits


Let's say I download some plugins for my web browser - say AdBlock, or Readability - and then visit your website, ignoring your ads and simply grabbing the content. This, to my knowledge, is not specifically illegal. It may be against your site's terms and conditions, but that's between us as individual parties, not against the law in general. Especially since I'm not redistributing the copyrighted content. Also, the purveyors of these plugins and tools aren't liable for any wrongdoing either as far as I can tell. In fact Apple added Readability to their Safari web browser. I doubt they would have done that had they any fear of copyright infringement.

Now, let's say I set up similar tools on my own personal server, and I use that server to grab web content, filter it, and then deliver it to me without advertising. Is that illegal? What's the difference between using my local web browser to do the filtering and using a server?

Let's say you set up that server, and offer that service to people who sign up for your service. Now are you at fault? This is what FlipBoard seems to be doing, and on the surface, it seems to be illegal. They are literally copying the content and re-delivering it to end users, modified in a way that's against the copyright holder's interests.

The question in my mind is now that we're entering into an age of cloud computing, at what point does the service provider become simply a conduit for individuals, rather than a separate entity? If Flipboard did everything they're doing now, but instead of doing it on the server, they simply added all the spidering and filtering in the client, would that somehow be different?

What about web-based email services? They filter out images and advertising as a basic feature - are they infringing on the copyright rights of the emailers? If I send out an advertising-supported email that a user signed up for, and your email client (web or local) strips out those ads, who's at fault?

There's got to be other examples that I can't think of right now, but it's an interesting question in my mind. On one hand, I don't like the idea of people taking *my* content for free (unless I give it to them that way, like this blog does now), but also I regularly use AdBlock on all my browsers because of the abuse of advertising by content providers. (Though, hey, it's their content, so I guess it's not abuse really, but as a user things like auto-playing videos, popup ads, etc. feels an awfully lot *like* abuse to me.)

I am a firm believer that the age of "intelligence in the cloud" is coming quickly. We'll soon all have personal, autonomous agents that live in the cloud, gathering, filtering, prioritizing, parsing and organizing the ever-increasing amount of information that is generated daily from everything and everyone around us. We're at the point now where every single friend *you've ever had*, everyone you've ever worked with past and present and every celebrity, politician, brand, author or artist you like are giving hourly status updates, and it's already overwhelming. When our cars, refrigerators, toasters, TVs, offices, homes, yards, streets, stoplights and more are all cranking out updates as well, it will be impossible to keep track.

But here's the thing: Is that Tweet you wrote copyrighted? Is Google infringing on your rights when they distribute it via Reader? What about your website? What's the difference between "parsing" your website with my browser and "scraping" your website with my server? Why does it matter where the computer lives that's doing the processing? Flipboard blurs the line between browser and news-reader, and strips out advertising when it displays sites using it's "custom client", but if your ads are all in Flash, doesn't the iPhone do the same already since it doesn't support Flash content? When you use Readability in Safari it also happens. Why is it different?

It'll be interesting to see how it all progresses culturally and legally as cloud services continue to take off, and new ways of computing - mobile, tablets, web apps, etc. - push the status quo again and again.


< Previous         Next >