Google vs Twitter: FUD on URL Shorteners

DeWitt Clinton’s screed on URL shorteners, especially directed at Twitter’s usage thereof, is interesting, not only for the actual content (which is broadly true, and fairly sensible), but for the meta-message: Google is increasingly threatened by Twitter as the prime mover in the “Real-time web.”

To me, this feels a bit like fear, uncertainty, and doubt spread about a competitor, attacking the competitor’s actions while distracting us about Google’s own actions. Most telling was this sequence about precedent:

As a thought experiment, imagine that your email provider suddenly started rewriting all of the URLs in your outgoing emails so they could track every link the recipients click on.

But since Twitter is the most popular, and arguably the most influential, of the new wave of micro-blogging systems, I sincerely worry that this is going to establish a precedent that everyone else will feel compelled to follow, since it is clearly an advantage to the network if they can get away with capturing this data. I ask, why wouldn’t WordPress or Facebook or Tumblr do the same if they could?

We’re supposed to be outraged by the privacy implications here, but the real outrage to Google is that it makes their job harder. Look at Gmail’s privacy statement on what they do about you clicking links on email you receive:

When you use Gmail, Google’s servers automatically record certain information about your use of Gmail. Similar to other web services, Google records information such as account activity (including storage usage, number of log-ins), data displayed or clicked on (including UI elements, ads, links); and other log information (including browser type, IP-address, date and time of access, cookie ID, and referrer URL).

from Gmail’s Privacy statement, dated February 9, 2010

Yes, Google’s asserted rights are over your own use and not with others’ use of the links you send. Ask an average user on the distinction, and I think they’d say it’s different but not categorically so.

The other part that interested me is the “Safety and Transparency” part for Twitter’s links. A major part of Twitter’s justification for wrapping every URL (which I’m still personally dubious about) is to protect people from malicious links. Well, that sounds suspiciously like the role Google’s interstitial warning page plays, especially when Twitter doesn’t have direct control of how the status message is displayed (it may be via a third-party application or SMS). Is this an argument against URL rewriting, or an argument against anyone else acting as a trustworthy intermediary?

I think Twitter’s revelations on its monetisation and platform strategy earlier this year have Google genuinely worried that Twitter is turning into a trusted gateway into the web, and so it gives rise to pieces like DeWitt’s, where Twitter is attacked for minimal differences in approach to taking on a threatening gatekeeper role. Google’s problem, and DeWitt’s myopia in offering solutions (“consider using an html payload”), is that Google is fundamentally of the web, and deals with web pages viewed through browsers. Twitter reaches beyond the web, being deeply embedded into mobile devices, and deals with much smaller units of interest than a web page.