Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

What's Google up to?

The Google steam roller just keeps going. The company that started out by providing a better Internet search engine seems to want to take over our entire Internet experience. Google has since provided us with maps, mail, the Earth, shopping, and much more. They've acquired YouTube to host our videos and Picasa to store and share our pictures.

You may have heard of the Chrome web browser, and maybe even of the Chrome OS. Some new cell phones are running the Android OS from Google, and now Google seems to be ready to market it's own brand of phone. Mac OS 10.6, Windows 7, and iPhone 3G notwithstanding, the Google steam roller just keeps on going, or perhaps it's the Google snowball, since it just seems to be getting bigger and bigger as it rolls along.

The latest acretion to the Google mass, is a new Domain Name Service (DNS). In case you don't know, DNS is one of those things that is fundamental to the workings of the Internet. It is a system to translate the human language URLs, like www.unt.edu into the numeric addresses like 129.120.188.44 that are understood by computers and Internet routers. DNS service is typically provided by your Internet service provider (ISP). If DNS is "down" or unavailable, it appears that the entire Internet is broken.

DNS is also one of the oldest technologies used on the Internet. It hasn't changed much since it was first invented in 1983, and depending upon the implementation, may be the slowest link in your Internet browsing experience. That little bit of lag time between when you click on a link and when the page begins to load is usually due to your browser having to request that the URL be translated to a numeric address. Most DNS services cache the lookups that have been done by others, so popular sites (like Google) will usually load pretty quickly. Sites not visited frequently by others may take a noticable amount time before loading.

Google's stated reasons for getting into the DNS business are to provide a service that is generally faster, more secure, and more valid, that is without redirects of a mistyped address to what may be a related commercial site. They don't intend to replace the root DNS servers that form the organizational basis for the Internet and are overseen by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICAAN).

The idea of an alternate DNS service is not original to Google. OpenDNS offers a free DNS service that claims to "make the Internet safer through integrated Web content filtering, anti-phishing and DNS." A similar service, DNSAdvantage, predates Google's offering and claims to provide "more reliable, faster, and safer" DNS services.

Cui bono?

It's nice of Google to want to make our Internet experience even better, but I still wonder what Google's real reason is for getting into the DNS business. Maybe they are just being nice, but somehow I doubt it. Google is a corporation with stock holders and like other corporations are expected to make money and lots of it.

Google makes money by attracting eyeballs to advertising. The reason you use Google's search engine is because it works so well in steering to you the information or service you seek on the Internet. It works well because they are watching a lot of people's searches and finding patterns that will predict the best result for your query. I can see a similar advantage to watching the URL names and addresses that people are directing not just their browsing traffic, but also their e-mail and other Internet traffic. The more data you have, the better predictions you can make.

What does Google's DNS activity imply for Internet privacy? Google claims that they will only keep a record of your computer's activity for 1 to 2 days after it happens. But if you use Google DNS, that means that Google will have a record of all your Internet activity for 1 to 2 days. Of course, your ISP or workplace network, if not an ISP, has a record of all of your Internet activity from home or work, but if they keep DNS logs, it is more likely for technical and not for data mining reasons.

Trust us, we're Google!

So, maybe we can just trust Google to do the right thing with all the information that they potentially can collect about our online activities, but recent criticism and past commentary in this column would suggest otherwise. Trust in Google was not bolstered by recent comments by Google CEO Eric Schmidt who stated, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Maybe I just don't want big brother Eric looking over my shoulder all the time.

So now you can use your Google phone or your netbook with your Google OS, to run your Google browser, using Google DNS, to do Google searchs, and read your Google mail, or watch your Google videos, or edit your Google documents. And all Microsoft can do is watch while their empire gradually crumbles around them as they face the onslaught of the Google Wave (literally). It seems that Google wants to attract users, AKA customers, by reshaping the Internet in their own image. I'm not saying it's a bad image, but you can get too much of a good thing.