Is Google Falsely Flagging Harmless Sites?

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Some Web site operators are complaining that Google is flagging their sites as containing malicious software when they believe their sites are harmless.

At issue is an interstitial page that Google presents when a user clicks on a search result link to a site that Google believes contains malware. The page cautions users with the words "Warning - visiting this web site may harm your computer!" Google does not block access to the site, but a user must manually type in the Web site address to continue.

Now some organizations with sites that get the warning are complaining that their sites do not contain malicious software, and that the warning is embarrassing.

"We have no bad software or installs or anything that would indicate a need to ban people from viewing our site," Matt Blatchley, who works for the Greenbush Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, wrote in a posting to Google Groups.

Appeals Possible, but Slow

Google's interstitial warning page contains a link to StopBadware.org, a project designed to study legal and technical issues concerning spyware, adware, and other malicious software.

StopBadware.org is run by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Oxford University's Internet Institute, and vendor partners such as Google, Sun Microsystems, and Lenovo.

According to an entry in StopBadware.org's question-and-answer page, Google decides whether to flag a Web site based on its own independent scans of the Internet.

StopBadware.org, however, will review Google's decision if a user submits a query to appeals@stopbadware.org. Google will remove the page if the Web site is free of malware.

Organizations with Web sites that produce the Google warning have chafed at the appeals process. Complaints elicit an automated e-mail from StopBadware.org saying it will reply within ten business days.

Malware From Third Parties

"We understand that this may be an incredibly frustrating situation for you," StopBadware.org says. "However, we have found that Web site owners are often not aware that their sites contain or link to badware."

This could occur, StopBadware.org says, if a site contains third-party advertising that has links to other Web sites with malware. Also, an organization's Web server may have been hacked, or the site itself could have been hacked through a security exploit.

Organizations should work with their Web hosting provider to check for security problems, StopBadware.org says. But some site operators object to being flagged without prior warning.

"They [Google] are the king of the Internet," wrote a user on behalf of Kukars Infotech, an IT services business in Rajasthan, India. "If they rank our Web site on top, then they can even humiliate us."

Google officials had no immediate comment.

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