You might have slept through it, but Google had a massive malware mix up Saturday morning, leading to questions about whether one company has inordinate influence over web life.
From about 9:30 a.m. EST to 10:25 a.m., Google searches warned that every site it indexed contained malware that could "harm your computer." Even trusted sites such as CSMonitor.com, the NYTimes, and Google's own pages received this troubling alert – only YouTube seems to have escaped the glitch. Users brave enough to click on the search results anyway received a second safety warning: "Visiting this web site may harm your computer! ... Return to the previous page and pick another result." But there were no other results; Google labels entire web as "malware."
The problem was "human error," explains the company. Someone accidentally updated Google's logs to flag every site with a "/" in its URL. Unfortunately for Google, every site has a "/" in its URL.
The snafu confused users and infuriated web businesses, which saw a big dive in hits during the hour-long mix up. Google corrected the records, but concerns remain. Has Google grown too big?
In an editorial called "Google’s flub: Do we have a Web monoculture too?" ZDNet editor in chief Larry Dignan writes that: "to many folks Google is the Window to the Internet. If folks can’t Google people are simply lost. That fact alone probably qualifies Google as a Web monoculture although it may be a touch premature to make a definitive call. However, Google touches everything and frankly that’s a bit worrisome."
There are, of course, other search engines. But as Dignan pointed out in an interview with CNET, most people didn't turn to Ask or Yahoo. They either assumed a malware catastrophe had swept the Web, or thought that Google had hiccuped and they should try later.
GigaOm chief Om Malik blogged that "it shows that Google has become the single point of failure in our digital lives, whether we like it or not. These problems — human errors as [Google] calls them — are not going to go away, as the company becomes bigger, offers more services and extends control on our digital lives."
Also, users aren't Google's real customers. Advertisers are. LATimes writer Chris Gaither wonders how the problem affected e-commerce. "Google, whose search engine is the most used worldwide, generated nearly $22 billion in advertising revenue last year. It will be interesting to see if Wall Street analysts try to calculate how much money the company lost during the 55 minutes it stopped delivering search results." Already, reports suggest that some sites lost 50 percent of their usual traffic during the hour.