Google’s AutoLink

Lots of invective and rhetoric being written about Google‘s new Toolbar functionality, AutoLink. Originally I probably wasn’t going to write anything about it, it’s really such a non-issue, but I’m growing irritated by the number of bloggers—mostly A-listers—who are speaking out against it. I’m not irritated as a knee-jerk reaction in defense of Google, but because most of what I’m reading is just plain wrong.

Quick background: Google’s new Toolbar (which is in beta, only runs on Internet Explorer for Windows and which you have to knowingly install to use) has a new function called “AutoLink” which, when manually invoked, searches for certain types of text on a web page and will automagically turn them into links, if there weren’t any links there already. The type of text it search for seems to be:

  • Addresses. These will create links to Google Maps.
  • ISBN numbers. These will create links to the product-specific page on Amazon.
  • Shipping tracking numbers.
  • Vehicle ID numbers (VINs).

Right off, I have to say I agree 100% with what Cory Doctorow wrote about this on Boing Boing:

It’s not a service I’d use, but I believe that it’s the kind of service that is vital to the Web’s health. The ability of end-users to avail themselves of tools that decomopose and reassemble web-pages to their tastes is an issue like inlining, framing, and linking: it’s a matter of letting users innovate at the edge.

I think I should be able to use a proxy that reformats my browsing sessions for viewing on a mobile phone; I think I should be able to use a proxy that finds every ISBN and links it to a comparison-shopping-engine’s best price for that book across ten vendors. I think I should be able to use a proxy that auto-links every proper noun to the corresponding Wikipedia entry.

And so on — it’s my screen, and I should be able to control it; companies like Google and individuals should be able to provide tools and services to let me control it.

Of all the sites I read, I think this was the lone voice of reason on the topic. Instead, you have people like Robert Scoble and Dave Winer calling this “evil” and a “slippery slope” that will lead to the end of the web as we know it and mass censorship by Google.

I’m not kidding. This is what Winer wrote:

And if links are changeable, is text subject to change as well? Might Google correct our spelling? Or might they correct our thinking? Where is the line?…

What’s next? Could they link it to Gmail, and where ever the name of a Gmail user appears in a page, change it to a mailto link so you can send them mail? If you’re in the widget business, might they change the links to your widgets to links to your competitors’ widgets? (Aren’t they already doing that to Barnes and Noble?) Would they add discussion software so that any Internet user can mark up your page with their comments, no matter how inane or immature?…

The AutoLink feature is the first step down a treacherous slope, that could spell the end of the Web as a publishing environment with integrity, and an environment where commerce can take place.

What’s funny is that email programs already autolink email addresses and web addresses—often wrong, I might add—in messages I get. And—get this—on any blog with comment functionality on it (like mine), users can already mark up that page with their comments.

(A note on the Barnes and Noble reference, though—yes, AutoLink does link a plain ISBN on Barnes and Noble’s site to Amazon. I confirmed it myself. Personally, I find it rather amusing; I know B&N will successfully lobby to get this fixed, so I’m not worried about it.)

And here’s some of what Scoble’s written:

I believe that anything that changes the linking behavior of the Web is evil. Anything that changes my content is evil. Particularly anything that messes with the integrity of the link system. And I do see this as a slippery slope….

The fundamental building block of the Web is linking. Linking is MY EDITORIAL CONTENT….

My editorial is sacrosanct. Linking is editorial.

Ironically, Scoble runs a linkblog where he reposts other authors’ blog entries, with his name highlighted, and adds a “Related” and “Comments” link to other people’s writing even as he writes the above.

It’s even more ironic that people like these guys who are all about innovation and are outspoken user advocates would come off like this. I see a “slippery slope” all right, but it’s going the other way.

How? Well, AutoLink is basically simplifying this process:

  1. Highlighting a piece of text on a web page (like an address).
  2. Opening a new browser window, going to Google (or MapQuest or Amazon, etc.).
  3. Pasting that copied text into the search box, and clicking the search button.
  4. Done.

No one should object to doing this, right? Well, the way I’m reading many of these arguments, pretty soon they will be. There’s the slippery slope, pretty soon the “content producers” are going to object because you might be using their text to search somewhere else on the web. So, let’s ban copying text from the browser. But wait, someone could just retype the text in without copying-and-pasting. Better take away the users’ keyboards so they don’t infringe on your content.

See? It’s a fun game.

The arguments almost all object to a third-party tool changing the content of their web pages by adding links. Okay, but what about the many pre-existing toolbars, plugins, extensions, and browsers themselves that already do this? Hell, the ability to do this is even built into the browser—you can turn off images, JavaScript, and stylesheets, and I guarantee doing that will alter the content of many, many sites—I’ve developed sites myself that depend on JavaScript and/or images, so I’m not exaggerating. This is a ridiculous argument.

In fact, the only good argument I’ve seen comes from Rogers Cadenhead: the copyright issue. By essentially altering a work (a web page, in this case) that is copyrighted for public consumption, the AutoLink feature may be in fact violating the copyright of that page. That’s a reasonable, intelligent argument and is something that should be addressed.

Until then, jeez. C’mon people, like Cory said, it’s healthy for the web. It’s innovation. Instead of whining about it, why not be productive? I’ve seen suggestions for an opt-out feature on web pages, that’s a good start; make it a META tag.

Or what about this? Make the toolbar smart enough to not change copyrighted pages, only those that are using an appropriate Creative Commons license, or are public domain. How would it know? META tags, again; Creative Commons licenses already embed RDF inside the content, so it’s not a stretch.

In fact, this is a good incentive to do something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile: convert my blogs over to Creative Commons copyrights. I personally have no qualms about toolbars or other software altering my content for a particular user’s display, so I’ll make it totally legal for them to do so. Within the week.

In the meantime, everyone complaining—take a breath and get over yourselves.