Panic Ensues After Google Glitch Flags Harmless Web Sites

February 02, 2009 02:06 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
“Human error” caused Google to mark every site on the Web as potentially harmful to users’ computers.

Problematic Search Results

On Jan. 31, Google’s search engine began troubling Internet users all over the Web. In its search results every site, good and bad alike, was flagged as possibly dangerous to computers.

In a Web search, Google automatically flags any site that could be hosting a virus or dangerous software like malware. But on Saturday, all sites carried the warning, “This site may harm your computer.”
Even some of Google’s own pages were marked as problematic, according to The Telegraph, so users couldn’t turn to the Google blog for an answer to their questions.

Google maintains a running list of potentially harmful Web sites. According to Silicon Alley Insider, an official explanation of the problem indicated that during an update of the list, “the URL of ‘/’ was mistakenly checked in as a value to the file and ‘/’ expands to all URLs.”

The trouble lasted for just 40 minutes, but it was long enough for some people to come to a realization about the Web.

“Google fixed the problem fast enough, but it’s a good reminder that a competitive search market is a good thing,” wrote Dan Frommer of Silicon Alley Insider.

The Telegraph quoted Twitter user BradBrownDotCom as saying “The Google outage frightened me like a schoolgirl, until I remembered an old technology called ‘Yahoo.’”

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Opinion: Weighing in on Google’s problem

Computerworld blogger Eric Lundquist said he agreed that human error caused Google’s trouble. “But not an error caused by some poor techie keying in a forward slash in the wrong place, but an error of system design that allows such a simple human goof to bring down the house.”

Lundquist suggested that problems like the one Google experienced happen “when system growth overpowers the original concept.” He said a better network of backups may have allowed Google to sort out its issue without causing such disruptions on the Web and let the system “degrade gracefully.”

“An errant slash in the wrong place should not be allowed to send the world’s largest search engine into convulsions,” he concluded.

The Telegraph reported that four out of every five Web searches start with Google, “making it a crucial part of the global economy.” Some people were worried what the site’s problems could have led to major trouble for internet commerce.

It’s that kind of fear that got Larry Dignan of ZDNet considering “the risks of having a monoculture dependent on any one technology supplier.” In terms of security, a monoculture is a dominant force that can become a big target. 

“If folks can’t Google people are simply lost,” Dignan writes. He suggested that when a problem occurs in one large system, or monoculture—like Google—people are left vulnerable. “We should all diversify from our Google habit at least a little,” he stated.

Related Topic: BlackBerry outage

On Feb. 11, 2008, many BlackBerry users around the country experienced a three-hour e-mail outage. Research in Motion Ltd., the maker of the BlackBerry, said the trouble stemmed from an upgrade meant to help boost capacity. BlackBerry users had gone through troubles several months earlier in April 2007 when a software upgrade crashed the system.

Reference: SweetSearch, Internet search


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