I was, unfortunately, flying between Chicago, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City when the whole Google Toolbar Autolink kafuffle occurred, and so I didn’t have a chance to comment on the phenomenon at the time. No matter. Instead, I’ll pretend that I’ve been sitting back and carefully pondering the topic, waiting for the right time to unleash my thoughts on the world. Yeah, that’s it.
Reviewing the discourse, it’s clear the arguments fall into two lines of thought:
- The user is God: Whatever the user wants, the user should get. After all, the content is rendered on the local machine – how is what Google doing any different than existing toolbar plugins that scrape away ads and spyware, or otherwise alter the content to enable accessibility? And isn’t anything that makes the user’s life easier, even if by altering content, a Good Thing? Cory Doctorow plays ringleader in this court.
- The content developer is God: How dare you sully my precious content with links that I, the content provider/developer, did not deem worthy of inclusion. I demand the right to opt out! Chief adherents to this line of thinking: Dave Winer
There were others who started on one side of the argument, then flip-flopped and ended up on the other side. In the end, reasonable suggestion from Robert Scoble, Tim Bray, and others came to discover the universal truth in debates such as these: the reasonable answer lies somewhere in between the extremes.
I found it ironic that Dave Winer, patron saint of the user came down on the side of content producers (or “developers”), given his historic railings against developer-centric thinking about software applications. To his credit, Cory Doctorow remained quite consistent in his vision of “user’s rights”, applying the same “right to remix” arguments he uses against DRM technologies.
In my opinion this was not an argument so much about what the Google Toolbar currently does, but rather what it (or other applications like it) could do in the future. If it’s acceptable to allow insertion of links, would it be OK to change existing links or add new text in such a way as to alter the original vision or intent of the author. Would we effectively be allowing Google to put words in author’s mouths? Much of this ignored, I believe, that Google has no real interest in what any particular author has to say. They’re simply interested in helping people find what they’re looking for, and automatically linking ISBNs to Amazon.com and addresses to Google Maps seems like a good mechanism.
While I agree with Scoble’s assertion that there need to be some rules about linking in order to prevent competing toolbars engaging in “link fights“, I would argue against his assertion that autolinking could result in a “wall-garden”. As things stand right now, services like Yahoo Maps, Mapquest, and others have become deeply embedded in the web as more and more people link to them – but what happens if something new (like Google Maps) comes along that a reader prefers? Tough! Those links still point to the services dictated by the page author.
Imagine instead a toolbar that would allow you to select your favorite application for “classes” of links (links to movies, links to books, links to maps, etc) – this would help smooth the way to dislodge obsolete services from the web and help migrate users transparently to newer, more innovative services faster. In an ideal world it would be nice if content producers could signal to a browser, “This is a movie link to ‘Forrest Gump’ – if the user clicks this link, take them to their preferred vendor for movies (Amazon.com, Netflix, Blockbuster, whatever), or if none is available, take them to Amazon.com). Oh, and here’s all my affiliate IDs for these services, in case the user buys something”.
Unfortunately, this would require authors to change their content to provide this meta-data. Would the web be willing to exchange their ideals of absolute author rights in exchange for an autolinking mechanism that mapped existing URLs to a user’s preferred service provider for a given “class” of URL? I’m not sure. And, of course, this entirely ignores the other question about autolinking: is altering the author’s content in this fashion even legal?