There was much lively discussion from my Twitter community yesterday – and not on from the football fans whose teams were involved in a flurry of goals in the second half. Josie Fraser was one of the first to report the incident:

Google’s gone a bit mental. Every site it returns for any search comes with a ‘this site may harm your computer’ warning 2:52 PM yesterday

Phil Bradley commented seconds later:

Google malware error running wild Everyone is seeing this from what I can tell. 2:54 PM yesterday

Twitter posts about Google problemsAnd then there was a flurry of comments from people confirming that the problem was widespread.

Now I could use this as an example of showing the benefits of Twitter when something significant happens in the world. And I suspect that when the next major incident (bombings, severe weather problems, major accidents, etc.)  occurs we’ll hear stories of how Twitter was used and we’ll have another of influx of subscribers.

But as I suspect that many readers of this blog will be aware of the benefits which Twitter can provide I’ll instead comment on the incident itself.

The official Google blog has described this incident in a post entitled “‘This site may harm your computer’ on every search result !?!?“.  The post summarised the incident:

If you did a Google search between 6:30 a.m. PST and 7:25 a.m. PST this morning, you likely saw that the message “This site may harm your computer” accompanied each and every search result. This was clearly an error, and we are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to our users.

And goes on to explain what happened:

What happened? Very simply, human error. Google flags search results with the message “This site may harm your computer” if the site is known to install malicious software in the background or otherwise surreptitiously. We do this to protect our users against visiting sites that could harm their computers. We maintain a list of such sites through both manual and automated methods. …

We periodically update that list and released one such update to the site this morning. Unfortunately (and here’s the human error), the URL of ‘/’ was mistakenly checked in as a value to the file and ‘/’ expands to all URLs.

So a simple human error caused all results returned by Google to be flagged with a worrying message. Now the Google blog posts points out that the problem was quickly resolved, claiming that “the duration of the problem for any particular user was approximately 40 minutes“.

But should this act a a wakeup call warning us of the dangers of a reliance on Web 2.0 companies?

It should be pointed out that this isn’t really a question of the ownership of the service. Does anyone really think that if a global search engine was nationalised that it would be immune to human errors? The incidents we’ve seen in recent years with government data clearly demonstrates this.

However as my colleague Paul Walk commented in an email shortly after this incident in a paper he had just submitted to the Museums and the Web conference “ I talked about distributed web services and chains of responsibility“. The Google incident would have provided a great example of such dangers, if it had only happened before he had submitted the paper!

Now Phil Bradley has already written about this incident, including a screen image of a Google search warning about the possible dangers of visiting the Goole Google site itself! But I think that I’d agree with Paul Walk that the more interesting issues are to do with the chains of responsibility, rather than a destination site which people visit, even one as popular as Google.

Google may have quickly fixed this particular problem. But we’ve not seen the end of discussions of the implications of breakdowns in cloud services. And what will this incident do for the trust people may previously have had in Google?