Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Google Autolink and Hypocrisy

Scott Granneman has published a couple of articles on Security Focus regarding Google; a great search engine can also serve as a great exploit and hacking engine, if you put some thought into it (or you know where to look.)

I recommend giving them a read - although I take exception to a couple of things in the latest column. As a kind of lead-in to his assertion that Google's post-IPO motto is now, "Don't be evil ... mostly. Kinda. Pretty much. Maybe," he brings up the old red herring that Google's cookie isn't set to expire until 2038. (I couldn't care less. If it bothers you, clear your cookies from time to time. And replace your tin foil hat, while you're at it.)

But what's really bugging Scott is a new feature in the Google Toolbar 3.0 beta called AutoLink.
The AutoLink feature adds links to the page you're viewing if it recognizes certain types of information on the page. For example, the online review of a great new restaurant has the business address but no map. You could go to a map site and type in the restaurant's street, city, and ZIP code -- but why bother? Clicking the Toolbar's AutoLink button will automatically link you to a map. AutoLink also recognizes package shipping numbers, car VIN numbers, and book ISBN numbers. (from Google Toolbar Help)
Sounds pretty useful, right? The Google Toolbar already rocks - though I'd be more excited about the new features myself if there was an official version for Mozilla Firefox, which has been my primary browser for a couple of months now. There is an unofficial version for Firefox - the Googlebar extension. Couldn't live without it.

The problem, as Scott sees it, is that the hyperlinks that appear in his columns are as much a part of the article as anything else:
I work hard in these columns to pick interesting, informative links that back up my statements, provide detail where I must be terse, or entertain with a sarcastic comment on my text. It's as much part of my writing as the words I use. In fact, in 2005, I would go so far as to say that for any writer using the web as a platform, links are in fact part of his or her writing.
Fair enough, I guess - I try to fill my blog articles with useful, relevant links as well. But the AutoLink feature will put links on our pages that we didn't add ourselves - that's what it's designed to do, after all.
When Google changes the links on this web page, Google changes my writing, without any input from me, and for commercial gain that certainly doesn't benefit me, or SecurityFocus, the publisher of my columns.
Ahh - now we come to the real issue. Someone might be making money from his column, and it isn't him.

But is that really what's going on? It seems to me that you could also say that it's Google providing a service - the toolbar, after all, doesn't care what page you're on - and any potential revenue stream from that service is, legitimately, going to Google.
If I was an online bookstore, the fact that my ISBNs turned into links to a competitor like Amazon would make my blood boil. In essence, Google - and selected partner companies - benefit commercially from my work, and I see nothing for it. Alternately, on my web site, I provide a lot of stuff under a Creative Commons license, but AutoLink ignores it and commercializes things I do not wish commercialized.
Almost. The logic is soooo seductive. But hold on just a minute here:
...I'm a enormous, grateful fan of the Adblock extension, which allows me to remove advertisements and other annoyances from web sites.


I've been thinking about it, and I'm going to keep Adblock for now, since its operation is completely dependent upon my actions - nothing gets blocked unless I explicitly enter a URL to block - and since I'm removing annoyances, not augmenting content. In between Adblock, which seems OK to me, and AutoLink, which isn't, is BetterSearch. BetterSearch does change the Google results page, but it's not changing the original content. Instead, it clearly adds an enhancement. However, this does beg the question: at what point does enhancement cross the line? Frankly, it's a notion that's still up for debate, and I'm interested in your take.
Well, then - here's my take. AutoLink doesn't do its magic unless the user explicitly clicks the button in the toolbar - that is, it works only when, and because, the user wants it to. It also doesn't alter any existing links; it only adds new ones.

To be fair, Scott points out both of these things in his column. But then he goes on to say
...once AutoLink is pressed, the viewer will not be able to tell which links are put there by the page's author and which are put there by AutoLink. Granted, holding your mouse over the link and waiting for a tooltip to open will indicate that the link comes from Google, but I'm not sure how many users are going to do that. In fact, given the state of most web user's knowledge, I have serious doubts that they'd even understand what the tooltip's text meant in the first place.
Let me get this straight - the readers of his column, which has an emphasis on computer security and privacy, are apparently too dumb to figure out which links are his originals, and which ones were added by AutoLink, even though they had to press a button to get the additional links?

And it's fine for him to view content which is intended to be supported by advertising revenue while deliberately blocking the ads, but it's not okay for me to use a tool to add content to his page that's beneficial to me?

I think Mr. Granneman has been infected by the same idea about Digital Rights Management (DRM) that the RIAA has been trying to enforce - the idea that a creator of a work should have some control about how that work is used by the consumer.

It's something like an author complaining that I should not be allowed to highlight passages in her book, or write notes in the margin - after all, if she'd thought those things were needed, she would have added them herself. And besides, the pen and marker companies are making money because I'm marking up her book!

Well, it's not her book. It's her work; her content. It's my book, and I can mark it up as I wish. I can bend the corners, draw a mustache on the author's portrait on the flyleaf, and make the table of contents into paper boats - I don't care what the author wants. This is my own personal copy of the book, and what I do with it doesn't affect anyone else's copy. It's all about me.

Are you with me so far? When you or I view a web page, the content may have come from the web server, but the data has been copied to our computers. It's in RAM, and possibly on the hard disk as well. It's our own personal copy. If I choose to mark it up for my own convenience, that's my business - not the author's. Don't try to tell me what I may or may not do on my own computer.

Scott even cheerfully points out that there's code that web sites can use to disable AutoLink. Gee, thanks for enhancing my user experience. I'm sure he'll be just as enthusiastic when the advertisers write code which gets around his adblocker.

So, who is the hypocrite here? Google? I don't think so.

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