Choosing the Greater Evil

by on February 22, 2005

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?

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