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Week in review: In search of trouble

Search giants take more heat over what the giants of the Web search world are doing and what they aren't doing.

Google and its search brethren are taking more heat this week over what the giants of the Web search world are doing and what they aren't doing.

Politicians attacked Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Yahoo for declining to appear at a briefing about China's Internet censorship and called for legislation to outlaw compliance with such requirements. The four technology companies said earlier that they were not able to schedule an appearance on such short notice but would testify at a similar House of Representatives hearing scheduled for Feb. 15.

"These massively successful high-tech companies, which couldn't bring themselves to send their representatives to this meeting today, should be ashamed," said Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who is co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which organized the briefing. Because his caucus is not an actual congressional committee, it does not have the power to compel companies to testify at its hearings.

Some CNET News.com readers slammed the criticism.

"These companies are caving in to demands from foreign governments because Congress hasn't offered any protections to shield them within our own legal system," wrote Richard Kokoska in News.com's TalkBack forum.

Under fire after censoring a Chinese blogger, Microsoft announced a new policy for dealing with government requests to block content that violates local laws.

Microsoft's new MSN Spaces policy states that the company will remove content only when it "receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws" or when the content violates MSN contract terms. When it does take down content, it will be done only in the country issuing the order, and the company said it will also "ensure that users know why that content was blocked."

Google's recent legal spat with the U.S. Department of Justice highlights not only what information search engines record about us but also the shortcomings in a federal law that's supposed to protect online privacy. It's only a matter of time before other attorneys realize that a person's entire search history is available for the asking, and the subpoenas start flying.

CNET News.com has prepared an FAQ to answer questions related to this new privacy concern.

Google raised the ire of stockholders this week when it missed earnings expectations for the first time since it went public in 2004, sending its stock price into an after-hours trading spiral. Google's share price has more than doubled in the past year and risen more than 40 percent since its last earnings report. In after-hours trade, however, the stock fell as much as 19 percent, a loss of more than $24 billion in market value.

Patent problems
Microsoft began e-mailing its corporate customers worldwide, letting them know that they may need to start using a different version of Office as a result of a recent legal setback. The software maker said it has been forced to issue new versions of Office 2003 and Office XP, which change the way Microsoft's Access database interacts with its Excel spreadsheet.

The move follows a jury verdict last year that found in favor of a patent claim by a Guatemalan inventor. Although existing customers can keep using older versions on current machines, any new installations of Office 2003 will require Service Pack 2, released by Microsoft in September. Office XP will need to be put into use with a special patch applied.

In another patent scuffle, wireless e-mail vendor Visto took aim at a fellow rival to Research In Motion, filing a patent infringement lawsuit against Good Technology. Visto and Good Technology are two of several companies looking to capitalize on the legal problems of RIM, which could see its popular BlackBerry service shut down from its own patent problems with NTP.

Visto is charging that Good Technology's products infringe on four patents it holds for sending data wirelessly over a network. The company is seeking a permanent injunction against the GoodLink software that runs Good's system, the same remedy sought by NTP against RIM's wireless software and services.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will re-examine the validity of the so-called JPEG patent held by Forgent Networks, an action that could deprive the company of its multimillion-dollar revenue stream. The Patent Office granted the review at the request of the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit legal services foundation that says it is interested in protecting the public against harm caused by patents.

Forgent has become one of the more successful intellectual property firms to emerge in the last few years. The company acquired U.S. Patent No. 4,698,672 (known as the '672 patent) when it bought Compression Labs in 1997. When the company audited its patents, it began to believe that the '672 patent covered the JPEG compression technique used in digital cameras and PCs.

Revealed on the Web
Apparent specifications for Dell's future notebooks were briefly exposed by Google's search engine before the spreadsheet was removed from a Dell FTP site and from Google's cache. The basic configurations for the Dell Inspiron e1405, Inspiron e1505, Inspiron 640m and Inspiron 6400 were available, along with several other unannounced Dell products, via a Dell FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site.

A base configuration of the Inspiron 6400 is expected to come with Intel's Core Solo T1300 processor for $830, with a 6400 notebook with the dual-core T2300 processor available for $880, according to the spreadsheet. The e1505 appears to be virtually the same notebook. Dell often releases very similar products under different brand names to target different audiences.

Dell apparently learned the hard way that companies have to be careful to ensure that proprietary information they store on the Internet is not automatically added to a search engine index for everyone on the Web to see.

Google, like the other major search engines, has an automated search engine that sends software robots called "spiders" out to crawl the Web and find sites to add to the index of Web sites it maintains. Webmasters who want to keep some or all of their site private from the Googlebot can put a standard document called "robots.txt" at the root of the server that instructs the crawler not to download content.

Sometimes the things that are revealed on the Web are really embarrassing. Just ask best-selling author James Frey, whose exaggerations in his "A Million Little Pieces" memoir led to a tongue lashing by his onetime patron Oprah Winfrey and secured a place in celebrity takedown history for the muckraking news site The Smoking Gun.

What many of Frey's readers probably don't know is just how tiny the news operation that exposed the author is. With only three reporters, the TSG staff is starting to exert an outsize influence on mainstream media. The Frey expose was the latest in a list of celebrity exposes by the New York-based operation, which was acquired by CourtTV in 2001.

Worm turns
The Kama Sutra virus started wiping crucial files from some infected PCs several days earlier than expected. The worm, also known as Nyxem.E, MyWife and Blackworm, was programmed to delete Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe PDF files on Friday, meaning people would still have had about two days to clean up compromised systems. But F-Secure said that because the clock time on their PC was wrong, some people had lost important files soon after their systems became infected.

By Friday, however, relatively little damage from Kama Sutra had been reported, according to antivirus vendors, and the worm's presence in e-mails appeared to be shrinking. F-Secure Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen nonetheless pointed out that the "full scope of the problem won't come to light until during the weekend or early next week"--after home users have booted up their computers during the weekend.

Microsoft in an e-mail warned users to update their antivirus protections against the worm, use strong password protection and remain wary of opening unknown attachments.

Security experts estimate the worm has infected at least 500,000 PCs, often using pornography as its enticement. The bulk of these machines are thought to be located in India, Turkey and Peru.

There has been a lot of confusion surrounding this worm, especially because media organizations and antivirus vendors haven't decided on a common name. CNET News.com settled on Kama Sutra, and has created an FAQ to address concerns raised by the worm's spread.

Also of note
"World of Warcraft" publisher warns a gay-lesbian guild that it risks being banned if it doesn't cease its recruiting activities in an online game...Windows Vista will add a feature called Sidebar --a small panel at the side of the monitor that can be used to view photo slide shows, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds and other small programs, dubbed gadgets...A Louisiana man filed a class action suit against Apple Computer, saying the computer maker has failed to take adequate steps to prevent hearing loss among iPod users.