Choosing the Greater Evil

by on February 22, 2005 · 16 comments

Isn’t it great to see that there are so many people looking out for us?


Maybe not. Maybe that’s why we call those folks busybodies.


Leading lights of the technorati are calling a feature in Google’s new Toolbar a “strategic mistake” and a “bet the company decision.” Others, more simply, call it “evil” (well, he works for Microsoft) and directly opposed to Google’s code of conduct.


They bemoan a new Toolbar feature, AutoLink, that turns unlinked but standardized data–such as addresses, ISBNs, package tracking numbers, and VINs–into hyperlinks that point to Google-affiliated services. When you use the new Toolbar, plain-text addresses, for example, link directly to (the excellent) Google Maps.


Critics are saying this is too reminiscent of Microsoft’s stillborn smart tags concept, which would have, for example, linked ticker symbols to MSN finance. Internet protestors got Microsoft to back down from offering the feature.


One critic, a tech entrepreneur, wrote that he could only live with Google’s AutoLink “If this was an open tool, where the data sets I was using to tag the content were advertising free and not tied to the tool vendor.”


In other words, he could only accept it if it included difficult-to-implement functionality that would be lost on the vast majority of users. And many are even less accepting.


To their credit, most critics this time around aren’t crying “antitrust,” but that’s only because it’s not Microsoft. Some, however, do imply that there may be a role for the government here:



Google is to the Web what Microsoft is to PCs–the operating system everyone uses to search. It has nearly the same lock on consumers’ share of mind…And millions use the Google Toolbar. They shouldn’t get away with what Microsoft was unable to.


The truth is, this sort of functionality has been around for years, but only to the tech elite. For someone in the know, it’s not too hard to install a filtering proxy like Privoxy, write and debug a few regex matching rules, and modify (just on their own computers) any page on the Web in any way.


Now regular users who couldn’t tell a regex pattern from gibberish have a choice, too: install the new Google Toolbar.


This week’s busybody pushback is the same sort of reaction we’ve seen in response to every half-innovative feature that Google’s offered in recent years, from its Adwords advertising program to advertising-supported Gmail. Oddly enough, the tech elite still seem to respect the company’s technological prowess and innovation. They’re wary, however, that Google intends to profit from these services, no matter how much upside they offer users in the process. For too many, the idea of government intervention is only a step or two away, users be damned.


But here’s the thing: wrongheaded as they are, the critics are right to seize on the idea of regulation. There is simply no other way to keep a user from exercising the freedom that he now has to modify any data on his own computer. Web browsers have always made it trivially easy to change the color of all hyperlinks or enlarge text a bit. Newer browsers can, effectively, rewrite pages to block pop-ups or halt Flash animations. Hyperlinking regimented data isn’t too much of a step forward, really.


So what’s next? Expect the argument to heat up in the coming months, as the same tech-elite busybodies are in a preemptive snit over RSS news aggregators displaying ads beside bloggers’ entries and their fear may become a reality soon. Maybe the Toolbar episode is just a warm up for that inevitable fight.

In the end, though, isn’t it bizarre that so many  paranoid souls would campaign for government restrictions on what you can do with data that’s on your own computer?

(Thanks to James and Adam for inviting me to post and to PJ for setting things up.)

Update: After days of linking to others’ criticisms, Dave Winer weighs in. His chief complaint:

In 2005, adding links to a page is not different from adding to or changing the words on the page. It’s as if a machine editor had license to change our meaning or intent, without our permission, without disclosing to the reader that it was doing so, because it’s impossible to know which links were added by the author and which were added by Google.

And it’s even worse than it appears. AutoLink “opens the door for Microsoft,” worries Winer.

But if AutoLink is what users want, isn’t that a good thing?

  • http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com Ed Felten

    You’re right on the merits here. But you would convince more people if you stuck to arguing the merits and toned down the ad hominem attacks.

  • http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com Ed Felten

    You’re right on the merits here. But you would convince more people if you stuck to arguing the merits and toned down the ad hominem attacks.

  • matt

    yes, this is very reminiscent (damn near identical) of the tool that microsoft tried to implement some time ago. and yes, that was met with all kinds of hysterical rhetoric as well. i haven’t investigated the tool yet, however i think that as long as three criteria are met that no one should be able to complain.

    1. have an off button on the tool bar settings. this is the simplest solution to nearly any type of problem of this nature.

    2. permit some sort of meta-tag on an HTML page that will permit content creators to disable this feature.

    3. have some way to distinguish between the hyper-links that were “automatically” added from the ones that are in the original HTML.

    three fairly simple steps that should negate any logical argument one can come up with. as i’ve said, i haven’t looked in detail at the function in question, maybe it already does this, if so this is just another example of a lot of noise for nothing.

  • matt

    yes, this is very reminiscent (damn near identical) of the tool that microsoft tried to implement some time ago. and yes, that was met with all kinds of hysterical rhetoric as well. i haven’t investigated the tool yet, however i think that as long as three criteria are met that no one should be able to complain.

    1. have an off button on the tool bar settings. this is the simplest solution to nearly any type of problem of this nature.

    2. permit some sort of meta-tag on an HTML page that will permit content creators to disable this feature.

    3. have some way to distinguish between the hyper-links that were “automatically” added from the ones that are in the original HTML.

    three fairly simple steps that should negate any logical argument one can come up with. as i’ve said, i haven’t looked in detail at the function in question, maybe it already does this, if so this is just another example of a lot of noise for nothing.

  • dmarti

    What about Linspire HotWords? Similar functionality, but it’s from a company that got sued by Microsoft instead of co-sponsoring Nathan Myhrvold’s evil patent bandit gang with them. I suspect that online chatter about being “evil” is just a reflection of the company’s apparent closeness to MSFT.

  • http://zgp.org/~dmarti/ Don Marti

    What about Linspire HotWords? Similar functionality, but it’s from a company that got sued by Microsoft instead of co-sponsoring Nathan Myhrvold’s evil patent bandit gang with them. I suspect that online chatter about being “evil” is just a reflection of the company’s apparent closeness to MSFT.

  • Parallels

    “In the end, though, isn’t it bizarre that so many paranoid souls would campaign for government restrictions on what you can do with data that’s on your own computer?”

    You could restate the question as: “In the end, though, isn’t it bizarre that so many paranoid souls would campaign for government restrictions on what you can do with data that’s on your own DVD? Or TV? Or CD? Or TiVo? Or _insert technology here_?”

    Seems like the Copyright Ã??Ã??ber Alles meme is highly contagious.

  • Parallels

    “In the end, though, isn’t it bizarre that so many paranoid souls would campaign for government restrictions on what you can do with data that’s on your own computer?”

    You could restate the question as: “In the end, though, isn’t it bizarre that so many paranoid souls would campaign for government restrictions on what you can do with data that’s on your own DVD? Or TV? Or CD? Or TiVo? Or _insert technology here_?”

    Seems like the Copyright Ã??Ã??ber Alles meme is highly contagious.

  • http://www.ministry-of-information.co.uk/blog/ NRT

    Yes, some of the rhetoric has been overheated, and some of the objections bogus, but my objection to AutoLinks is highlighted by your final sentence:
    “But if AutoLink is what users want, isn’t that a good thing?”

    That’s a fair point, but unfortunately disregards content-providers in favour of convenience for visitors. I, as site owner, provide some links from my pages, and withhold others. It’s my decision, not that of a visitor, and certainly not that of a third-party.

    Imagine I had some objection to a certain online bookseller, and had specifically, quite deliberately, avoided linking from, say, a book review on my site to the corresponding entry at that retailer’s site. If AutoLinks then linked to the retailer anyway, my site would be generating traffic and revenue for that company, directly against my will. Personally, I don’t regard that as acceptable.

    Visitors to my site mightn’t agree with my objection to the bookseller, but the point is that it’s my website, and I’m not asking the visitor to agree. I wouldn’t be preventing the visitor from going to the retailer’s website via a different route, but I’d certainly object to my web content – my intellectual property, to get a little precious about it – being used to assist the process, without my permission.

    I fully agree that the user needs there to be an ‘off’ button (and Google provide it – AutoLinks aren’t displayed unless specifically requested), but the content-provider needs an opt-out too, as Matt said.

  • http://www.ministry-of-information.co.uk/blog/ NRT

    Yes, some of the rhetoric has been overheated, and some of the objections bogus, but my objection to AutoLinks is highlighted by your final sentence:
    “But if AutoLink is what users want, isn’t that a good thing?”
    That’s a fair point, but unfortunately disregards content-providers in favour of convenience for visitors. I, as site owner, provide some links from my pages, and withhold others. It’s my decision, not that of a visitor, and certainly not that of a third-party.

    Imagine I had some objection to a certain online bookseller, and had specifically, quite deliberately, avoided linking from, say, a book review on my site to the corresponding entry at that retailer’s site. If AutoLinks then linked to the retailer anyway, my site would be generating traffic and revenue for that company, directly against my will. Personally, I don’t regard that as acceptable.
    Visitors to my site mightn’t agree with my objection to the bookseller, but the point is that it’s my website, and I’m not asking the visitor to agree. I wouldn’t be preventing the visitor from going to the retailer’s website via a different route, but I’d certainly object to my web content – my intellectual property, to get a little precious about it – being used to assist the process, without my permission.

    I fully agree that the user needs there to be an ‘off’ button (and Google provide it – AutoLinks aren’t displayed unless specifically requested), but the content-provider needs an opt-out too, as Matt said.

  • http://q.queso.com/ Jason

    NRT, would you argue that content providers need opt-outs to popup blockers, too?

  • http://q.queso.com/ Jason

    NRT, would you argue that content providers need opt-outs to popup blockers, too?

  • matt

    in response to jason, there are a number of people who would want an opt-out for pop-up blockers. when pop-ups are used effectively they can be beneficial to both the provider of content and the consumer. true, some providers abused this feature creating what are commonly referred to as “mouse-traps” (those never-ending recursive pop-ups). i know for a fact the the “blur” or “exit” console was actually quite good for content providers, and therefore must have been appealing to many of the consumers. for more info on this you can read this article by Stephen Yagielowicz.

  • matt

    in response to jason, there are a number of people who would want an opt-out for pop-up blockers. when pop-ups are used effectively they can be beneficial to both the provider of content and the consumer. true, some providers abused this feature creating what are commonly referred to as “mouse-traps” (those never-ending recursive pop-ups). i know for a fact the the “blur” or “exit” console was actually quite good for content providers, and therefore must have been appealing to many of the consumers. for more info on this you can read this article by Stephen Yagielowicz.

  • http://q.queso.com/ Jason

    I agree, Matt, but that doesn’t answer the question. So, to state it again: should site providers have the ability to put a META tag in the header of their pages that turns off all popup blocking in the browser?

  • http://q.queso.com/ Jason

    I agree, Matt, but that doesn’t answer the question. So, to state it again: should site providers have the ability to put a META tag in the header of their pages that turns off all popup blocking in the browser?

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