Week in review: Taming the wild Web

Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple all make strides in the browser battles, while courts rule on copyright cases. Also: Politics, tech-style.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
5 min read

The browser battles are heating up, with Microsoft, Mozilla, and Apple all releasing offerings to entice Web surfers into their respective camps.

Microsoft released the second public beta for Internet Explorer 8, bringing it up to par with alternative browsers such as Opera, Apple's Safari, and Mozilla's Firefox in terms of security and features.

IE 8 adds a Security pull-down menu between Page and Tools on the main toolbar. In addition to blocking phishing sites, IE 8 now highlights the main domain of any Web site you visit. IE 8 also contains a cross-site scripting filter, one of the first in a mainstream browser. Cross-site scripting allows an attacker to execute script on users' browsers without them knowing.

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In another feature, known as InPrivate, Microsoft allows the user to suspend caching functions while you surf. The scenarios for using InPrivate include when you're using someone else's computer, for instance, when you need to buy a gift for a loved one without ruining the surprise, or when you're at an Internet kiosk and don't want the next person to know which Web site you visited.

Mozilla released an experimental browser plug-in that aims to connect the Web with language to help users perform common Web tasks more quickly and easily. Ubiquity is a command-line interface that enables users to use plain language to manipulate Web tasks, such as mapping, translation, shopping, or retrieving entries from Wikipedia, Yelp, or Twitter.

Ubiquity grew out of Firefox's new Smart Location Bar, or "awesome bar," which helps resolve incomplete URL entries into browser address bars. Ubiquity doesn't replace the awesome bar, but a separate command line is generated by typing Ctrl-Space for Windows or Command-Space for Macs.

The free Firefox plug-in enables the creation of "user-generated mashups with existing open Web APIs," according to a post on Mozilla's site. "In other words, allowing everyone--not just Web developers--to remix the Web so it fits their needs, no matter what page they are on, or what they are doing."

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have released an extension for Firefox 3 that can protect wireless network users from so-called man-in-the-middle attacks. The software, dubbed "Perspectives," is available for download for free.

Perspectives also protects against attacks that exploit a recently exposed flaw in the DNS (Domain Name System), which translates Web addresses into numerical IP addresses.

Meanwhile, Google brought the open-source Gears technology to Apple's Safari, augmenting some browser abilities such as using Gears-tailored Web sites while offline. Gears extends a browser so, for example, some Google Docs can be edited or viewed while the user isn't connected to a network. It also can speed up use of the WordPress blogging software and some operations at MySpace, and Google is expanding its scope to geolocation services and other areas, too.

Copyrights in court
Video-sharing site Veoh defeated a copyright infringement lawsuit filed in 2006 by the Io Group, an adult entertainment company. Veoh defended its actions by citing provisions within the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that call for a party to remove copyrighted material from its Web site, when notified by the copyright holder.

A U.S. District Court judge found that Veoh was not liable for hosting copyrighted videos that its users uploaded to its site because the company used an automated process to post videos and did not play an active role in getting the material onto its site. The court also found that Veoh removed the material when informed by the copyright holder, putting it in compliance with a "safe harbor" provision of the DMCA law.

The unprecedented decision is definitely favorable to Google, YouTube, and all user-generated sites, but it doesn't mean that Google will necessarily prevail in the $1 billion copyright suit filed against it by Viacom, parent company of MTV and Paramount Pictures.

What's different about Io and Viacom is that Io didn't notify Veoh of the copyright infringement on the site before filing suit. In contrast, Viacom sent more than 100,000 "take-down notices" to YouTube prior to filing its $1 billion copyright complaint.

However, a copyright attorney said Viacom can still prevail provided that it proves YouTube is a business built on pirated material and that parent company Google has knowledge of the unauthorized clips on the site.

Another closely watched copyright infringement case seems to have been resolved over charges of evidence tampering by the defendant. Judge Neil Wake reportedly ruled that Jeffery Howell, a defendant in Atlantic v. Howell, had willfully and intentionally destroyed evidence related to his peer-to-peer activities after being notified of pending legal action by the Recording Industry Association of America. Furthermore, since it was done in bad faith, it "therefore warrants appropriate sanctions."

In April, the judge seemed to agree with the defendants' arguments that the RIAA's "making available" position "amounts to suing someone for attempted distribution, something the Copyright Act has never recognized." However, the RIAA accused Howell of uninstalling Kazaa and reformatting his hard drive after being served with the lawsuit.

Politics go tech
On the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Barack Obama announced that he had selected Delaware Sen. Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate. Obama was expected to announce his selection via text messages and e-mails to supporters on Saturday. While supporters who signed up for the announcement still received them, the Associated Press reported the selection of Biden late Friday.

According to Nielsen's numbers, the SMS campaign tactic reached 2.9 million people. However, Keynote Systems, which measures and monitors e-business performance, estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of people who signed up to receive the text either received it late or not at all.

By choosing Joe Biden as their vice presidential candidate, the Democrats have selected a politician with a mixed record on technology who has spent most of his Senate career allied with the FBI and copyright holders. Biden, whose antiprivacy legislation was actually responsible for the creation of PGP, ranks toward the bottom of CNET's Technology Voters' Guide.

However, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that Obama had actually chosen his former archrival, Hillary Clinton, to be his vice presidential candidate. And Bill Richardson. And Kathleen Sebelius. And four other Democrats, too.

That's according to a set of articles that appeared on the paper's Web site early Saturday. The articles were published in error, of course, and they disappeared from the newspaper's Web site a few hours later. While they were live, the list of prepared-in-advance headlines said Obama had variously chosen Biden, Clinton, Evan Bayh, Chet Edwards, Sebelius, Tim Kaine, and Richardson.

Technology companies were at the Democratic convention in Denver this week to highlight more than just their new products--they're pushing an agenda as well. The Consumer Electronics Association, a lobbying firm that represents 2,200 technology companies such as Microsoft, Sony, and Hitachi, brought its 28-state "America Wins with Trade" bus tour to Denver this week to convince Democrats that free trade benefits the tech industry, as well as consumers. Groups with opposing views are taking a high profile at the convention, however, and the conflicting interests in the party are apparent from its mixed messages on trade.

Also of note
Hundreds of flights were delayed in cities across the country due to a computer failure in the Federal Aviation Administration's system for processing flight plans...An electronic gaffe at news outlet Bloomberg mistakenly sent an incomplete obituary for Apple CEO Steve Jobs over the wire on Wednesday afternoon...Amazon.com is buying Shelfari, the social-networking site for book lovers.