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Google Sidewiki Raises Multiple Legal Concerns

January 14, 2010

“Google Sidewiki is a browser sidebar that lets you contribute and read information alongside any web page”  

It does this through an extension of the Google Toolbar, acting as a plug-in in your browser.  Anyone can add information in a frame beside any website.  No content is stored on the site you are viewing, rather on a Google server.  The information will then be visible to anyone who later views the site and has Sidewiki installed.  Here’s a better explanation.

The first legal concern this raises is fairly obvious: defamation.  If anyone can edit the Sidewiki, in much the same way Wikipedia has been used to defame in the past, Sidewiki will allow defamation on an even broader scale. 

For example, if someone writes something libelous about a notorious and controversial columnist  on Wikipedia, it appears only in that article, and can be changed immediately by the columnist, or any other user.  And, in fact, the poster [if known] can be sued for defamation [though probably not Wikipedia itself, given their Terms of Use].   With Sidewiki, a defamer could navigate around the web, adding a post to the Sidewiki everywhere the victim’s name appears.  Worse is that the victim would have no way of discovering the defamation without installing Sidewiki.  Installing Sidewiki can only be done by installing Google Toolbar’s advanced features, which has severe privacy issues associated with it.

Of course, the marketplace will take care of it, and clean it up, or at least that’s the Web 2.0 theory. 

In a potentially more serious and far more disturbing scenario, imagine you post pictures to Flickr or Twitpic of your children playing.  Obviously, you are aware that anyone can view the picture, but what if they could make comments on that photo, semi-permanently, without your knowledge?  If you haven’t installed Sidewiki, you have no way to know what has been said about your son or daughter’s photo on the Sidewiki.  It’s entirely possible that those comments could be very inappropriate (like much of the Internet’s content).

In another situation, suppose an author posts a poem on her website.  Then, users on the Sidewiki copy portions of it into their posts discussing the poem.  Does that copying infringe on the copyrights held by the author?  Does the Sidewiki, coupled with the adjacent depiction, create a derivative work? 

Perhaps more important to know is your liability for things you post on Sidewiki.  If you write all kinds of defamatory information on the Sidewiki attached to your ex-girlfriend’s blog, for example, it is YOU, not Google, who can be held accountable for those statements.  The same is true for illegal content, or copyright infringement.

Google’s Terms of Service, which you must accept to use Sidewiki, state:

“8.5 You agree that you are solely responsible for (and that Google has no responsibility to you or to any third party for) any Content that you create, transmit or display while using the Services and for the consequences of your actions (including any loss or damage which Google may suffer) by doing so.”

The presentation of information alongside your content may be confusing to an end-user as well.  Imagine you maintain a blog on local music in your area.  A user of Sidewiki visits your site, and posts to Sidewiki the lyrics of a local artist’s song.  The artist then, with Sidewiki installed, visits your site, and sees her own lyrics posted on what she sees as your site.  She files a suit against you for copyright infringement.  Obviously, you’ve done nothing wrong, but you may need to incur legal costs to convince her and her [admittedly uninformed] attorney that you had no control over the content.

Sidewiki has amazing potential to be a collaborative and expansive knowledge base.  It could provide consumer input on products, provide a forum for debate, and will allow for even further expansion of the user-generated knowledge available on the web.  That said, I don’t think the few concerns here should trump its value.  Instead, I think content-generators should try to be aware of what is posted on Sidewikis associated with their sites.  Moreover, I think Google should take an active role in patrolling the content posted, not to censor, but to alert site owners when obviously harmful information has been posted in areas attached to their site.

 Only time will tell how all this actually shakes out.

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