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Google Toolbar AutoLink

I’m a bit wary about throwing myself in the middle of the whole Google Toolbar AutoLink business (Dan Gillmor has a good summary and lots of trackbacks to opinions, pro and con), but I’m sort of dumbfounded that so many people are so vehemently against it…at least for the reasons being given. The three main points I’ve heard articulated by those opposed to the feature are:

1. Browsers and toolbars should not modify the content or layout of Web pages…they should render them only as stored on the Web server.

2. Microsoft tried to do this with Smart Tags in Windows XP and everyone hated it so why are we willing to give Google a pass with a similar feature?

3. Google can unfairly use their growing clout to exploit AutoLink users.

I’ll address the second point first because it’s sort of beside the point and not an argument at all. One of the big reasons why people were so upset about Smart Tags is that Smart Tags were on by default in early preview releases of IE. The browser was automatically rewriting every single page you loaded, adding links here and there. I agree that this sucks (although users may become used to things like this in the future and not think it’s such a big deal), but AutoLink is not on by default. It’s optional…you have to specifically push a button to make something happen.

But the main reason people seem to be up in arms about AutoLink is that Google is modifying the content and display of other people’s content and that browsers and toolbars should not be allowed to do that. Aside from the first part of that statement being factually incorrect (more on that below), browsers and toolbars already modify other people’s content and no one really complains about it. In fact, people love it:

  • Firefox, Safari, Google Toolbar, IE, and several other browsers/toolbars all give end users the option to block JavaScript popups, which typically contain ads. This very much goes against the intention of the content provider and is a clear example of software that modifies a site from how it was intended to be displayed. But users love it so browser/toolbar makers include the feature.
  • Browsers allow users to use custom stylesheets when browsing sites, turn off JavaScript on pages, and browse without viewing images or other multimedia files.
  • There are tons of bookmarklets and browser extensions that let people modify the page they’re viewing in interesting ways (this one inserts links to Feedster on NY Times and WaPo article pages).
  • Since the early days of the web right on up to the present, browsers have purposely misrendered badly written HTML so that people could view the pages instead of getting junk or a blank page.

All of these features break the supposedly cardinal sin of “thou shalt not modify the content providers content from the way it was intended by them to be viewed” and I don’t hear anyone complaining about it. The fact is, once a user downloads a copy of a content provider’s web page from their server, the page becomes just that, a copy. As a user, I should be able to use whatever software is available to me to manipulate, modify, or otherwise remix that copy which I’ve downloaded for my own personal use. If I can, for my own personal use, photocopy magazine articles, rip my CDs to mp3, make backup copies of my DVDs, and scribble in the margins of books, surely I can do the same with copies of web pages I’ve downloaded.

Now, if you’re against AutoLink because you think Google is becoming too big, they’re evil, they’re abusing their power, or they bought another blog company instead of yours, then that’s fine. Just be up front about why you’re upset. It’s a trust issue. Do you trust Google’s software to do what it says its going to do and not take advantage of you? If the answer is no, don’t use it. But if you’re saying that Google should not provide this feature at all and that consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes can’t choose to use the feature themselves, I don’t think that’s a good deal for the users. As content providers, let’s not try and reach into our readers’ computers and dictate what they can or can’t do with the copies of our content that they’ve downloaded for their personal use…let’s leave that sort of wishful thinking to the nutballs in Hollywood.