Trying the New Google Crowbar

I'm researching the new Google Toolbar beta, which enables Internet Explorer users to click an AutoLink button that edits Web pages, adding links when it recognizes a book's ISBN number, street address, or package tracking number in the text of a page.

Though it's a cool hack, as I said on Jason Levine's weblog, at first glance this seems like overstepping the boundaries of copyright. Robert Scoble voices similar concerns.

I fund my Web server in part through the revenue generated by affiliate links to my books -- sites earned around $3,300 from Amazon.Com referrals in 2004.

In principle, Google Toolbar's new functionality could be used to replace these links with ones that commercially benefit Google.

In practice, the current beta only adds a link to ISBNs that do not already have a link, as you can test on my book list. When the page is loaded, the toolbar's AutoLink button becomes Show Book Info. Clicking the button turns the plaintext ISBN for Movable Type 3 Bible Desktop Edition into a link to Google's toolbar proxy, which in turn redirects to an Amazon page for the book. The ISBNs for other books, which have my Amazon affiliate links, are not altered.

Before:

Page Before Autolink

After:

Page After Autolink

Without question, Google's software is creating a derivative work when a user clicks AutoLink. Levine believes that since a user has the right to alter a work for personal use, provided that it is not redistributed, this feature simply puts that right into practice -- like a TiVo user fast-forwarding past commercials.

I support the use of ad blockers, image blockers, and browser plug-ins that alter the presentation of Web pages for readability or accessibility reasons. Perhaps this falls into the same area.

However, I think this feature is different than software that excludes content entirely or alters it for presentational purposes.

The alterations are so subtle that users would not be clear that a page's publisher did not author these added links, which may be to undesired sites and services.

For instance, if you visit a book's page on the retailer Bookpool, clicking Show Book Info revises the page, linking the ISBN to the book's page on Amazon.Com. Anyone care to guess about whether Bookpool would approve of this change?

Google derives commercial benefit from the added links, and could even implement the feature in a manner that replaces links from which a publisher earns revenue.

This feature reminds me of cases where a company added its own pop-up ads triggered by other publishers' sites or framed someone else's pages.

Carry Google's new feature to its natural conclusion, and a browser such as Mozilla Firefox could add functionality that replaces all affiliate links it recognizes with ones that benefit the Mozilla Foundation.

I have a lot of respect for Levine's armchair legal analysis on Q Daily News -- he's a constitutional law junkie who attended oral arguments in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale and reads amicus briefs for fun. But I have trouble believing the courts would support the for-profit alteration of Web pages in the manner facilitated by the toolbar.

Comments

The alterations are so subtle that users would not be clear that a page's publisher did not author these added links

Are you sure you actually installed the toolbar? Or do you also write books like "Putting On Your Pants: The Mouthbreather's Guide"? The user has clicked a toolbar button with the expectation that links will be added to a link-poor page (because why bother, if all the books have links to Amazon already, and all the addresses are linked to a map service, and all the VINs...), and when they hover over the newly added first link, which has been highlighted and scrolled into view, their cursor has little Googleballs below the wrist, and the tooltip says "Google Toolbar AutoLink", and you are worried that they won't be able to tell whether or not that link was there before they clicked their AutoLink button?

If this feature becomes part of an official release, how many Toolbar users will know what "Show Book Info" does? How many users are Web-savvy enough to know to hover over a link to see a tooltip that indicates its authorship? How many will realize that clicking the button -- whatever its label -- will add links to as much text as the Toolbar recognizes?

I think that the vast majority of Web users would not be clear on which links came from the Toolbar and which ones came from the Web publisher. I can't think of another transformational feature of Web browsers that makes authorship of any content on a page this unclear.

There is a fundamental difference between what Google does and what the user can do; the introduction of third-party content is the line. The user may push a button to initiate it, but it is Google that chooses what to link, and Google that chooses where the links go, not the user.

This is developed more fully in this essay, which may be long, but that's simply because it's a complicated subject that can't be hashed out in weblog comments.

There have been other transformational programs in the past, but so far, we've kept them smacked down.

Jeremy, no you haven't, you simply don't know about them.

Rogers, do you really not realize how patronizing that is? Just argue what you mean: they may not know that your affiliate link gives you money, or worse yet, they may not want to give you that money, and then do what you did between one time I refreshed your books page and the next, and link the ISBNs. That easily, you defanged AutoLink, without needing to deny me the value it adds to something like www.locusmag.com

I didn't have to defang AutoLink. I added the ISBNs to the book list today so I'd have a page where I could illustrate the functionality of the toolbar. There were no plain-text ISBNs on the page before this morning.

Phil, that doesn't scale. "All you have to do to prevent X from screwing up your content is to do Y", and in three years we have to add 20 meta tags and goodness knows what else just to have a chance in heck that our page actually says what we want it to say, and stay on top of whatever somebody else wants to do to my page.

And as for there being existing software that does this stuff, actually I am aware of quite a few programs. But they haven't gotten popular and I'm going to do what I can to make sure they stay that way. That way lies pure and utter chaos, where the only "people" who can speak unimpeded are the big companies, if even they can.

Phil, where do you draw the line?

Would Microsoft be allowed, for example, to change the spelling of your name where ever it appeared?

Suppose Microsoft decided you were really a woman, so it changed your name to Phyllis everywhere it appeared, even in your own pages?

What if Microsoft decided you were pregnant and had an abortion, and some crazies decided to come to your house demanding to see Phyllis so they could re-educate her?

Where is the line?

Oh my goodness, guys, I just found out that there's this company distributing this thing called a scissors and if you press the wrong button they cut people's faces out of yearbooks! I'm pretty sure the yearbook authors don't authorize these modifications. Who will join me in my quest to ban scissors?

Doug: The issue is not Microsoft changing anything. The issue is Microsoft letting the user change things.

The fuzziness comes in when the user isn't clear about their intentions or the program isn't clear about its effects -- say, if just installing the toolbar for searching leads to changing my name to Phyllis. But this is a question of abusive anti-user software design, not of copyright.

Phil, try this one on for size.

Wouldn't it be cool if where ever your name appeared, Google substituted your email address! That way anyone who wanted to send you email could do it with one click. That would be neat!

It would be even cooler because they have Gmail which so many people use, so they probably know your email address!! This is coolio.

I don't think the average user is sharp enough to know that clicking the autolink button rewrites page content.

Rogers is right--Google Toolbar 3 beta rewrites HTML associated with ISBN citations. The revision strips the Amazon Associate details, effectively denying the blogger the micro-commission on a book sale. That sucks for the little guy and it will be a measureable impact.

Bernie, if the average user doesn't think the button rewrites page content, what do they think? The page shows one thing, they press a button that says "AutoLink" or "Show Book Info" and then it shows another thing. Do they think that the button emails the author of the page, asks them to change it, and then reloads it, all real quickly?

The Firefox community are progressively writing extensions to provide the same functionality as the add on toolbars for IE.

I really can't wait for someone to duplicate the Auto-Link functionality in a Firefox extension just so I can enjoy watching all the current Google critics explain why that's evil as well.

Is that it? Because it's Google producing the functionality we should be angry about it?

Once again we see the price for implementing, with all due respect to Tim Berners-Lee, a trivial subset of what Ted Nelson knew we'd need in the 1960s.

I'm also opposed to what Google is doing.

If Google refuses to change this toolbar behavior, they should, at the minimum, offer a way for web content developers to opt out. What about a no-auto-link tag?

Rogers: I'm repeating myself, but... my house, my rules. My machine, my line to draw. It's not even a complex issue. It's very, very simple.

"This feature reminds me of cases where a company added its own pop-up ads triggered by other publishers' sites or framed someone else's pages."

The frame case involved public rebranding of content. The toolbar is a privately used tool... I can frame CNN and MSNBC all I like if I'm willing to do the framing on my own desktop.

The popup cases are also different. In those instances, the user wanted something like username/password autofill, but ended up getting silent additions/modifications to the pages she visited. The toolbar's autolinks aren't added silently, and they aren't an undesired consequence of performing a desired function.

Now, as I said to Scoble, I'll change my tune slightly if Google ships a version of the toolbar with Autolinks set "on" by default, or labels the button something deceptive like "AutoBackrub".

I'd also suggest they pop up a dialog the first time a user clicks the button, something that briefly explains what it does. Not that I think they should be required to do so... but it would be a user- and publisher-friendly way of addressing the issue.

I couldn't care less who is doing it. Anybody producing a tool that integrates third party content not coming from the user with my content is producing an unethical tool.

There is a sharp line between external content being integrated into a page, and the user doing something with the page on their own. Aaron, you may feel that's also OK, but it's a real difference between what Google is doing and your metaphor, which doesn't involve any external content. In fact, I eschew all metaphors on this topic, because there is no physical analog for what Google is doing; it's only possible with living expressions like software and webpages, not the dead ones of the physical world.

The question isn't what this is most like; the question is, what right does Google have to do this, and, if they do have a right to do this, where does it stop? I don't think you can draw a line between this and anything else, once you accept the integration of third-party content, because they can do anything to your content once you accept that, and any attempt at drawing a line at how third party content can be integrated is doomed to failure.

Especially when you can just draw the line at no external integration, preserve free speech for everyone, and lose nothing important. (For how little people are willing to jeopardize their free speech on the web astonishes me, when it gets right down to it.)

Boy, a preview would be nice.

I edited your text to fix the typo. This site definitely needs a comment preview function.

Jeremy, a question for you: if I write a bookmarklet that turns all proper nouns in a web page into links to the respective Wikipedia entries, would I have the right to use that?

"Anybody producing a tool that integrates third party content not coming from the user with my content is producing an unethical tool."

I have here a machine called a timestamp. You stick a piece of paper in it and it stamps the current date and time. It's very useful for keeping track of when I got things: someone gives me a flyer or a handout, I timestamp it, and put it in my "to file" pile. Then I always know what day I got it on.

Jeremy says this machine is unethical because it combines third-party content not coming from the user (the date) with his content (if he gives me a flyer or something).

Jeremy wants to know what right the timestamp manufacturer has to make this machine, rightly noting that it could stamp _anything_ on those pieces of paper.

So Jeremy, what is unethical about making this useful machine? What would be unethical about it if it stamped ads Amazon.com or censored swear words (by blacking them out). How can this machine possibly "jeopardize free speech"?

(Note that this machine is even worse than the online version -- at least the online version is reversible, but the stamp can never be removed.)

Because you wrote it, it is all your content, so yes, you can use your own bookmarklet.

My problem isn't, intrinsically, the modification. I'm with Aaron in the sense that you have the right to do what you want with a page once you have it... as long as it all comes from you, more or less. (There is a scale thing here, too, where Google is performing the same manipulation to the page for a large number of users; even though you can, theoretically, violate the integrity of a message by editing it and copying and pasting something else into it, nobody cares about something that small any more than they care if you do that locally to a copy of a movie.)

To keep going, what if you got that bookmarklet from somebody else? At that point I'd have to draw the line.

Of course, ethics being what they are, you can then argue that that is too small to be worth bothering about, and I'd listen. You could say there's an analogy here to Fair Use (though this would not be what is considered Fair Use) where there is something that is theoretically illegal/unethical, but in small constrained uses we'll allow it. Since it's admittedly impossible to draw that line, we may write provisions into the law to have a Judge have the final say, just as Fair Use has. Fuzziness is a part of life. But Google's link bar and the other examples of Smart Tags aren't small enough for this to matter. (Having been around this loop before, I'd point out that this entire paragraph pre-supposes the acceptance of my ethical theory, so if you don't accept my theory in the first place, trying to use this as a springboard to convince me that the Google toolbar is a "small exception" isn't going to do much for me... truthfully, if this understanding were codified in law I would agree that this is probably a small thing... but it isn't an "exception" today, and we can't treat it as such.)

Going further, one can observe that "mere mortals" can not write a bookmarklet to do that themselves. I'd support a program that helped users write that bookmarklet... but I wouldn't support that program shipping pre-pared examples, except perhaps inasmuch as they are small things with the caveats in the previous paragraph. (I'm also on the record as supporting the use of ad-blocking proxy servers, as long as the user has to create their own blocking list.)

Getting a little nit-picky? Yes, of course, when you're riding a line that's always the case. But, as I alluded to earlier, even if you don't agree the line is meaningful, I do have one I can draw, and while it isn't 100% sharp, what is?

Aaron, I'm willing to concede you mean well. Please do me the same favor. You do nobody any favors by mocking my position.

For one thing, I have a perfectly logical answer to that question, having thought about this a lot. Is it worth telling it to you, or have you already decided to mock and deride anything I say?

Jeremy, I'm really curious about your ethical theory. How can my timestamp machine possibly be unethical?

Sorry, I didn't think I was mocking you. I'm serious and genuinely curious about your position.

The timestamp machine isn't unethical; the timestamp is independent of the thing it is stamping.

Two things to note: First, while I've been linking to this essay throughout the course of this discussion, you really have to read that to know what I mean; it is too in-depth to copy & paste here and references back to earlier relatively precise definitions in the essay as well.

Second, upon re-reading it, the definition needs a bit of clarification of the word "affects". While a timestamp can theoretically affect someone's perception of a piece of paper, the idea of "dependence" goes further; nothing in the physical world can be "dependent" on anything else. So I'll save you the effort of pointing out it doesn't quite seem to fit and point it out myself :-) (I've gotten a lot of good feedback on this, and I know it's not completely phrased right.)

As I said earlier, there is nothing in the physical world that works like this.

(I mean, I've not gotten a lot of good feedback on this, and I'd consider it a miracle if that essay comes out of this week unchanged.)

Aaron, if I explicitly address your theoretical timestamp machine in a later version of the essay, do you want me to credit you for it? (I want to credit you, but if you don't want to be associated with something you don't agree with, I'll understand. Or I can credit you in a new "thanks-to" style section.)

So I went and read some of that page, and your logic seems really faulty to me. You compare Third Voice-style annotation to censorship, noting that it has the same effect as cracking into a web server and modifying the page.

But there's a crucial difference between these two: the reader's consent. With Third Voice, I asked for the modifications and I can turn them off. With a cracked server, this simply isn't the case.

(Analogy warning.) There's a difference between a government censor reading my mail and blacking out anti-Bush rhetoric and an optional private service which reads my mail and blacks out any movie spoilers.

You're more than welcome to credit me.

Jeremy, I have to say I couldn't disagree with you any more about the right to distribute tools like that -- and people are out there right now distributing bookmarklets, extensions, and proxy services that do this very sort of thing. It's actually exciting to me, since it's this (semantic linking of information) that makes the web such an amazing new medium.

Oh, and regarding independence, I've argued with you elsewhere on this idea from your dissertation, but to rehash: I don't see how you can claim that something like a popup blocker or feature that disables viewing of animated images is a content-independent feature. (For example, a documentation site that had an animated screenshot showing how to use a feature would probably consider that animation to be extremely germaine to the content of the site.) And by making value judgements about what's content and what isn't, it makes your argument that much harder to buy wholesale.

Indeed. BTW, here's a nice little app that links proper nouns to Wikipedia pages and adds in technorati backlinks.

There's a question I'd like to see a supporter of autolink answer, because I'm genuinely interested in testing the argument I'm making here. I was supportive of Third Voice, because it wasn't presented inline on a Web page, the external authorship was obvious, and annotation was too interesting to smother in infancy.

My question: If autolink was turned on by default and altered existing affiliate links to Amazon.Com and other retailers, would you still call it fair use and support the feature?

If not, why doesn't a user have the right to run third-party software to alter hyperlinks on Web pages?

Yes, of course it would be fair use. It could be spyware which breaks into your computer and inserts ads into the middle of the page and edits all liberal websites so they look like they have poor spelling and doesn't tell you it's doing anywhere, and it would still be fair use. (See, e.g., the EFF's legal defense of Gator.)

It would be bad, but that's because it's not doing what the user wants -- the author's desires remain irrelevant.

OK, it seems to me that you're asking two different questions, so I'll answer each separately.

First, would I call it fair use? I think that it probably is, legally -- it's a third-party tool that a user chooses to install, an act which places whatever functionality it performs firmly into the category of responsibility-assumed-by-the-user. (It's similar to me to something like Yahoo's free mail service -- users accept the free ads placed at the bottom of all their outgoing mail because they feel the utility of a free web-based email app is worth it.) I also think that altering links is (rightly) not something that most users would like, which means that they wouldn't install it, and the toolbar would fail as a product.

Second, would I support the feature? As I noted in the last sentence of the paragraph above, I probably wouldn't, because it alters links. (Note that I'm assuming that by "support," you mean "install and praise." If you mean something else, please let me know, so I can mull that over too.)

But there's a crucial difference between these two: the reader's consent. With Third Voice, I asked for the modifications and I can turn them off. With a cracked server, this simply isn't the case.

The problem with that argument is if the user does consent to the hacked server, suddenly it's OK? User permission is irrelevant; it's not their permission to grant.

Reader consent is only half of the equation. Writers have rights too. You and I are both writers as well as readers, and it amazes me to watch you so readily throw away your right to integrity. Today it's mere link changing or adding, which itself can still radically change the content of a piece of content; links are part of the content too. Once you've opened the door to changing the content of a work, what argument are you going to use when someone starts actually editing the words? Links are just content, too.

Jason:

I don't see how you can claim that something like a popup blocker or feature that disables viewing of animated images is a content-independent feature.

Well, since I'm using my personal definition of "independent", not the word in general, it trivially follows from the definition. You say the distinction doesn't mean anything to you, but it isn't inconsistent. It's content-independent basically because I say so, since it's my own definition. Certainly by other definitions that would fit that word it wouldn't be, but by mine, it is.

Jeremy: "In fact, I eschew all metaphors on this topic, because there is no physical analog for what Google is doing..."

Of course there is. I can hire an assistant to go through every day's NYT, copy out the bits relevant to me, add valuable annotations like links, strip out the junk I don't need, and forward the result to me.

Does the NYT like this practice? I don't really care. Their feelings on the matter are completely beside the point.

Rogers: "My question: If autolink was turned on by default and altered existing affiliate links to Amazon.Com and other retailers, would you still call it fair use and support the feature?"

That "and" causes problems.

Does it still give me, The User, what I want? Do I want those links changed, and do I want the feature on by default? If so, then you betcha I'd still support it.

But even if I didn't support it on those grounds, I still wouldn't attack it on the basis of authors' rights.

"Writers have rights too ... [namely, the] right to integrity"

Where did they get this right? Why should they have it? How does it help anyone?

"what argument are you going to use when someone starts actually editing the words?"

I support people editing the words.

Of course there is. I can hire an assistant to go through every day's NYT, copy out the bits relevant to me, add valuable annotations like links, strip out the junk I don't need, and forward the result to me.

But that ignores the scale; one person doing something is very different from a lot of people doing something. That scale matters to the debate, ergo, that metaphor alone is not enought to capture the totality of the issue.

Perhaps it is too strong to declare straight out that there is no metaphor, but all I can say is that in five+ years of thinking about this issue, I've never seen one that fully captures all relevant aspects in the one neat little bundle people are looking for. Believe me, I wish I could find one, it'd be nice to be able to tie up my entire argument in one cute little metaphor; it's not for lack of looking. But I don't want to put forth a metaphor that does as much to muddy the issue as it does to clarify it.

OK, Aaron, we're never going to see eye-to-eye. You support what I consider censorship and a world where nobody has free speech. I know you don't see it that way, and I'd bet you think I'm supporting a world where nobody has free speech, though I don't know. But at least we've put our views out there.

But I would, in closing, ask you to consider what it really means to have "free speech" in a world where anyone can edit your speech willy-nilly. Who cares if you can say whatever you want, if you can never be certain anyone is ever going to hear it?

"Who cares if you can say whatever you want, if you can never be certain anyone is ever going to hear it?"

But that's the world we live in! People can put their fingers in their ears, shout "nanana, I can't hear you!", skim documents, draw all over them, talk over people, play music in the background, etc. It's always been this way, long before computers. I don't think free speech has ever included a speaker's right to tell the listener to shut up and listen to exactly what they're saying.

Free speech is about people's right to hear what's being said, if they so choose. Now most of the time it doesn't seem this way, since free speech comes up when someone challenges it, and the challenger has to be the speaker (since how do you know to demand to hear something you haven't heard?).

I don't think free speech has ever included a speaker's right to tell the listener to shut up and listen to exactly what they're saying.

My system doesn't include that either. You don't have the right to force someone to listen.

People can put their fingers in their ears, shout "nanana, I can't hear you!", skim documents, draw all over them, talk over people, play music in the background, etc.

My ethics preclude none of those. An exception, sort-of-not-really, is made for the physical world where things like being shouted over happen (but it can still be quite impolite and borderline unethical to shout people down in the real world, too).

If you were targetting that criticism at me, you may wish to dig more deeply into what my ethics are; you don't understand them, which is hardly a big suprise (who can read minds? I'm sure I don't fully understand yours either), but unlike most people, I've actually worked through them and laid them out for criticism and thinking. It took a long time, and it's subtle work.

Greetings,

...This...gets...long... If trackbacks worked on my blog, I'd blog it instead of commenting, but...

As I pointed out on Scoble's blog, on a casual reading of Jeremy's essay, it instantly becomes obvious that Jeremy is using a definition of 'free speech' that is unusual (not related at all to the First Amendment), over-extended, and in fact causes the rest of his argument to be tautological from it.

Effectively, if you start with the opinion that free speech means no-one can alter your words after you've said them, even in the privacy of their own home for amusement or otherwise, then you've already answered the question before you began. The essay would be much shorter if you started with that argument, as it's not worth going around in circles just to get there.

Still, once you have delivered your content to me, there is no 'freedom to be heard as you spoke', in any form, in any media. Further, in no way can or should your freedom to speak overrule any person's freedom to control their own property. (This is why the 1st is about the Government, not about your freedom to speak unedited in the editorial section of the NY Times, which you'll note, you do NOT have.)

You have never, in any prior medium, had the 'right' to have your words, images, or other copyrightable material untouchable when they are in the privacy of someone else's home. I repeat this, a lot, because it is really, really important. Your 'no reasonable metaphor' does not matter, there never has been such a right, and that right cannot co-exist with my right to control my property.

You may freely DESIRE such a power over me, and you should be clear that you wish it were so, and I can lead you down the path to what that entails, and what rights you lose for it (horrific ones, I assure you) but you can't reasonably claim that it exists currently.

I have been slowly moving towards making this (the toolbar-edited content) argument on the basis of (of all odd things) annotations and first-sale doctrine. Where a web page, as delivered to me, and then reinterpreted through my designated agents (designated by being installed), acts as a chain of annotate-and-give-away, similarly to a series of college students all annotating a textbook and selling it to another the next semester. This is my 'reasonable citizen' interpretation of the law, applying physical media rules to digital media. (Yes, it's almost impossible to do because of the lack of case-law in the purely digital media realm, but a reasonable person has to start somewhere.)

If I write a bookmarklet that adds 'not' after every instance of 'I'm' in a page, I believe it should be my right to do so, and it should be my right to distribute it to others who want to see what it does to discussion boards. (It's kinda funny, actually!) I'm really not positive I have this right, right now, but that's why I'm trying to frame it within the context of law that I know already exists, and keep within the confines of law, because it is a reasonable interpretation.

As much as everyone wants to believe that the net changes everything, it does not. My right to control my property, and content on it, after it's in my house has always trumped your right to try to get me to read what you are saying in the form you wrote it, and it can't be any different without substantially infringing my rights in ways that are even more injurious than the First Amendment. And that's from a person (me) who is DEEPLY fanatic about the 1st.

Fundamentally, if you base your argument on a flawed interpretation of the First Amendment, that extends it to grant you freedoms that you do not now, nor ever have had, and that do not advance the rights of individuals against the government, then it unfortunately ends up not being a useful argument.

The problem that you, Dave Winer, and many others, have is that you see some sort of 'First Amendment for Corporations', where companies (and thereby individuals) are not allowed to ignore, or suppress, on their own systems, your speech. That is not the intent, the wording, or even extractable from the First Amendment.

The First Amendment is not at all threatened by tools, addins, browsers, or other things that users employ to modify content to their preferences.

(hot button topic here)
For me, the First Amendment is about protecting citizens rights to speak out against an oppressive (in their own free definition) government, to freely disseminate ideas that are contrary to its preferences, and to try to change the government through convincing others that your position is right, and even know that alternatives exist. Democracy (in my opinion) requires this, with respect to the government. I feel you actually cheapen it some, by trying to claim that corporations should be held equal to the government with regards to First Amendment protections.

With all respect to you, you need a new term. Free speech is intermingled in the minds of all with the First Amendment. You want, perhaps, 'unalterable speech', or something that doesn't cause you (and others) to think of it in the same terms as the free speech that is our right, granted by our Constitution.

You have the right to keep using 'free speech', of course, but I think I have the right to write a bookmarklet that changes 'free speech' in any block of text it recognizes as yours, to 'unalterable speech'. :)

-- Morgan Schweers, CyberFOX!

Jeremy: "But that ignores the scale; one person doing something is very different from a lot of people doing something."

The scale is me. The scale is one. I am running an application. I am hiring an assistant. The end.

But just to play along, there are plenty of companies that specialize in hiring out executive assistants. And one of an assistant's primary jobs is filtering information. Here we have a lot of people adding/subtracting/modifying data with the help of an otherwise uninvolved corporate third-party.

Now, if you want to argue that it is unethical for my assistant to filter without permission, I'd generally agree. If you want to argue that slipping a "mole" into my business to lead me astray is unethical, great, we agree again.

But I won't be agreeing on the basis of some random author/caller/contact/partner and her non-existent right of unfettered access to my attention. I'll be agreeing because deception is the ethical problem in those scenarios.

Jeremy: "My ethics preclude none of those."

That doesn't address Aaron's point. You stated:

"Who cares if you can say whatever you want, if you can never be certain anyone is ever going to hear it?"

And he pointed out (accurately) that this has been the state of the world since the dawn of communication. You're not entitled to certainty in communication, and never have been... in fact, expecting it or depending upon it is blatantly self-destructive.

More importantly, the notion of certainty is poisonous to that of free speech. If I have the right to consume your speech in whatever manner I prefer, then I have no compelling claim on the restriction of speech itself... I can "change the channel if I don't like it."

Once that freedom is denied, it becomes imperative that I pursue the right to control what you can say. At which point the game is over, and everyone loses.

I guess, Google should'a known they'd lose some karma over this. But, truth is, there's not much here. Find another fight, like SPAM or PHISH.

Anybody catch the hockey game last night?

My biggest issue with Jeremy's arguments about content filtering -- and yes, it's a long, nuanced piece -- is that it imposes an undue technical burden upon users. Until there's a perfect natural language to regext translator, personal proxies, style sheets and filters will be installed and updated in a non-pristine state.

It's a question of trust and user-side consent towards the technical middlemen here; a situation that has always been in place, since web users have always relied upon content modifiers in the form of browsers. Google has produced a transparent, opt-in content modifier. I don't see how that threatens message integrity as long as it remains transparent and opt-in.

Effectively, if you start with the opinion that free speech means no-one can alter your words after you've said them, even in the privacy of their own home for amusement or otherwise, then you've already answered the question before you began.

There's no need to theorize (incorrectly) about my definition of free speech.

I think you're free to do what you want with downloaded speech, but you can't extend that right to Google.

By the by, y'all would stand a better chance of convincing me that I am in error if you didn't keep knocking the same straw-man of "no content modification at all ever period" over. That's not what I'm saying, it's never what I said, I will never say it, and I'm increasingly tempted to add that as a paragraph in every section as a disclaimer.

Ummm -- Jeremy, I'm actually arguing the opposite, which is to say that your argument is significantly weakened by the fact you're willing to state an absolute (message integrity is prime) and then make value judgements that nibble into that absolute (it's actually OK to block popups and animated graphics, because message integrity isn't THAT prime). You can't have it both ways. (And as I've said before, defending your argument by saying that the nibbles are actually being made independent of the message is a value judgement in and of itself, since you're not the author of the message and aren't qualified to decide which parts of it demand absolute integrity and which can be sacrificed to some greater, independent good.)

Of course it's a value judgement to some degree. Do you know of a set of ethics that doesn't have some value judgements in them? I actually cut a chapter on the axioms I'm using on the grounds that it was too boring and nobody would ever read them.

So instead of dismissing my "value judgement" directly as such, why not discuss it on its merits? I fairly clearly define what constitutes "independence", and the very definition flows from how the message is perceived. I'm still at a loss as to how your insistence on some absolute criterion and repeatedly labelling my point as a "value judgement" automatically renders it worth not considering.

If your standard is some sort of absolute certainty, I'd like to hear your "absolute certainty".

(By the way, that wasn't directly aimed at you, it was aimed at everybody else who keeps trying to convince me that what I really meant is something I didn't.

Considering the entire point of my essay is to show a principled middle ground between absolute, free-speech stifling chaos of giving all power to the reader (and whoever can jump in the way) and absolute, free-speech stifling order of giving all power to the writer, it's quite frustrating.)

I've repeatedly stated an example that breaks the notion of independence, and haven't yet received any rebuttal, so here goes again:

You say that it's OK to modify a message when the modification doesn't block the content of the message, but rather changes its rendering. You use blocking popup windows and animated images as examples, saying that doing so is OK because "these features are independent of the content." What about a dissertation that uses popup windows to display footnotes? What about a tech support page that uses an animated screenshot to show how to use a feature? Both examples are clearly content, and blocking either clearly interferes with the integrity of the message.

I use both of these examples because they demonstrate that there's an internal contradiction in your argument, namely that you can't say integrity is prime and then justify the acceptableness of blocking popups or animated images by saying that neither actually interfere with the integrity of the message; in some cases, you're right, but in others, you're clearly not.

So if we start from the basis that popup blocking is OK, we can't necessarily rest on a foundation of message integrity. And if we start from the basis that message integrity is paramount, then we have to throw out popup blockers.

That's why I don't start from either foundation, but rather one where no content author has the absolute right to have me consume their content in the exact manner in which they produced it.

Both examples are clearly content, and blocking either clearly interferes with the integrity of the message.... I use both of these examples because they demonstrate that there's an internal contradiction in your argument, namely that you can't say integrity is prime and then justify the acceptableness of blocking popups or animated images by saying that neither actually interfere with the integrity of the message; in some cases, you're right, but in others, you're clearly not.

This time it is clear to me. I address this directly in the very definition: Again, we do not try to read the mind of the sender, but pay attention solely to the flow of concrete parts and their assembly. For instance, a novice web page creator may place an image tag in their HTML page and intend that every user see it. However, it is not this ``intent'' that is transmitted, instead it is an HTML image tag, <IMG SRC=''something''>. etc. etc.

Here's hoping that comes through correctly.

Think of (my definition of) integrity less as "correctness" for some impossibly subjective definition of "correct", and more as a boundary between the parts coming from the sender, and coming from somewhere else; "integrity" as in the "structural integrity" of a balloon or something. With this, I explicitly acknowledge, and indeed critically build on, the vaguaries of some media like the web, while still providing a definition of "external content".

You can and should take advantage of the web contracts to view content as you see fit. You should consider the fact that I use a popup "blocker" in Mozilla and I explicitly do not feel I am being hypocritical :-) The real point of integrity is where the concrete parts are coming from, and w.r.t. the issue at hand, there's these additional concrete parts coming from Google's server.

Thus, this isn't a "value judgement", it is an empirical, concrete determination of where the concrete parts in a message comes from. And for all I've tried to break the model, I can't (especially see the "expression" chapter for the full totality of it); everything always comes from somewhere.

There is a real difference between not completely rendering a site, and adding external content without permission, and unlike many parts of my essay where there are definately fuzzy aspects of it, I've never been able to come up with a situation where the source of concrete parts is fuzzy. Certainly you can do amazingly wild things with them (and I link to a couple... the "Shredder" is cool), but you can always track down what was used (at least given full knowledge of the internals of a program). If you can come up with a fuzzy example I'd be grateful.

Also note that in the case where a web site owner does make it explicit, I would consider that a violation if you bypass popups. While I think it's a bad idea, if a website makes viewing the content explicitly contingent on seeing the popups through mechanisms other than HTML, especially through some sort of legitimately binding legal agreement (which most are not on the web for a variety of reasons), then bypassing them is an ethical violation. (To really split hairs, it probably still isn't truly a "message integrity" violation, but a breach of contract.) And for sites that do this, I honor the request; Salon comes to mind with their "day pass" system. I do not try to technically bypass their system, even though I am capable of it, because that would be unethical; they've technically tied viewing their content to an ad and I do not support bypassing that.

So it's only OK to block content that comes from a site other than the server from which the web page originates? That doesn't deal with either of my examples -- my footnotes pop-up windows would certainly come from my own site, as would animated images that I use for tech support reasons. But you'd block both, right?

And on the flip side, does anything done by AutoLink come from the Google website? I haven't dissected the inner workings of the tool, but since Rogers says that viewing HTML shows you the *original* HTML, that means that the rewriting is happening in JavaScript and using the DOM, and that means that it's very likely that everything, everything, is occurring clientside with no additional input from google.com (or any other site).

And lastly, why do authors have to take the explicit step of doing everything they can to prevent you from blocking popups in order to gain the right to force you to see them, but authors DON'T have to take similarly in-depth steps to block AutoLink in order to gain the right to prevent you from using it? I don't understand the difference; it seems that if the rule is that the author has to take explicit action to declare use of client-side tools verboten, then that should be the case no matter what the tool happens to be.

Also note that in the case where a web site owner does make it explicit, I would consider that a violation if you bypass popups.

Presumably, every website author who has placed popup ads desires that you should view them in return for accessing their content. Therefore, you are in violation whenever you block a popup. A website shouldn't have to resort to tricks like Salon's to make it clear that they want you to see advertisement.

I have a box at the bottom of www.scroogle.org/gscrape.html that explains how to set up Firefox so that the ads are blocked while using Google's main search engine. But this is much different from the toolbar's AutoLink feature.

1. There's a mega-quantitative difference. Dozens of people may follow my instructions and block Google's ads on their own copies of Firefox. But when the toolbar updates automatically without asking, as this beta version is scheduled to do in April, within days millions of copies of Explorer will have the AutoLink feature. Quantitative differences of this magnitude become qualitative.

2. There is no third-party content interference when I block Google's ads on Firefox. I'm blocking, not adding content. I'm also blocking ads when I turn off my computer and go wash the dishes. There's no rational comparison here with AutoLink.

3. Google is not only a third party adding content from a centralized location, but they have a private-profit interest and are well-positioned to make tons of money from this. Google alone determines whether that redirect from their new ISBN link goes to Amazon, or to Barnes & Noble, or to any of thousands of possibilities I can think of for various kinds of links on various types of identifiable text. This is a very slippery slope.

4. If the browser doesn't remain a faithful rendition of the web page as designed by the owner-designer, then the Internet breaks down. Everything becomes increasingly centralized. A Google engineer makes a tweak, and traffic patterns around the world shift. Webmasters already see this in their Google rankings when, as sometimes happens, their pages suddenly disappear in an update. It's already too centralized with Google's search engine semi-monopoly. Webmasters need to take power away from Google, not give Google additional power.

To address them in order:

1. Why is something acceptable for one person to do, but unacceptable for thousands? That's the argument in this that's never made sense to me. If we're OK with one person authoring a plugin, toolbar, or extension that makes a client-side change, then we have to be OK with everyone doing so, or be OK when everyone draws the line differently as to how much is OK.

2. Why is it OK to say that, rather than focusing on CHANGING content, it's better to focus on ADDING content? Or, to put it another way, blocking content and adding content are both ways of changing content. Why is adding content BAD, but blocking content is OK? Page authors choose to put Google's ads -- or any other bit of content you choose to block -- on their pages. Why is it acceptable for you to disregard their wishes when it comes to that bit of content, but it's completely unacceptable for you to make a choice when it comes to adding content?

3. The argument seems to goes that AutoLink shouldn't be able to create links because it might contradict the authors' wishes in terms of making money (e.g., someone might buy a book from Amazon after AutoLinking a page a Barnes and Noble). But blocking content like ads blocks a website author's ability to support itself through THAT revenue stream -- and you're OK with that. Why is it OK to disrespect an author's stated mechanism of financial support via ad blockers, but not OK to disrespect it by using the information they provide to take a sale elsewhere?

In addition, have you installed beta 3 of the Toolbar? As it is, there's a preference, set by the user, as to which map website is used; one can imagine that the same pref can exist for bookseller, VIN information provider, etc., and that this is exactly what a beta period for software is meant to bring up. I'd say that it's important to not blame Google for behavior that's not final, but rather is in beta testing.

4. This is the one I really can't believe -- are you really saying that we need a world where user agents (browsers, clients, etc.) and the users that run them can't make any decisions about how to display content? I shouldn't be able to use user-side style sheets, shouldn't be allowed to translate pages, shouldn't be able to turn off image display, and the like? Take your statement -- "A Google engineer makes a tweak, and traffic patterns around the world shift" -- and change "Google" to "Microsoft" or "Mozilla" or "Opera" or whomever; you get the same idea, that the user agents are written by someone other than you or me. And it's this very fact that means that we all SHOULD be able to decide what client-side tools we would like to install and use to make our browsing experience better for us.

Wow. Where to start?

The Time-Stamp Machine analogy:
1) Most time-stamps are obviously from a different source than the original document i.e.: different font and color, whereas I suspect (based on no experience with the tool) Google makes it relatively transparent that their tool has inserted anything.

2) The manufacurer of the Time-Stamp Machine does not get paid by the "Time Operator" (third-party data source) every time someone uses the time which was stamped onto a document. Presumably, Google is getting paid when someone buys a bood using one of their spontaneously-generated links.

"Users aren't so dumb they won't know it's outside content":
I've been in Tech-Support for WAY TOO LONG to believe this argument.

Sorry, folks, but most users aren't very technically knowledgeable and won't know why the google eyes appear sometimes and not others. This has no relationship to intelligence - if noone has ever told them in framework they can remember, they they just don't know.

Everything we learn is "added to" something we already know - and if the computer user doesn't already understand concepts like "outside content", then even if they read that in a disclaimer, they have nowhere (in their existing knowlsdge-bsae) to attach it and it WILL get lost.

Even if Google (or anyone else providing such a tool) put in a disclaimer page when the user clicked one of their links, explaining that it is their link and not provided by the page author, most people will either click through it without reading it (every time it comes up) or find the check-box which says, "Don't bother me with this again."

Blocking Pop-Ups and other Advertising:
1) Most Pop-Ups are Advertising, and if it is something I (as the reader) want (whether necessary content or advertising), I can hold down my Ctrl key to tell my pop-up blocker to allow the pop-up to appear.

2) Chances are extrememly high that I will not purchase whatever is being advertised on the page or in pop-up windows. It is of no benefit to anyone for me to see them.
However, if I am looking at content about a book (the current Google data-insertion topic), and I want more information, I may click the link and see what's there to see. This may be a convenient feature.

First-Amendment Freedom of Speech:
I agree that this probably doesn't (yet) fall into a First Amendment category, but it has that potential.

Yes, the editor of a newspaper has the right to edit a letter I send in. However, I DON'T THINK they have the right to re-publish something I published somewhere else and edit it without indicating that they edited it.

As far as I'm concerned, if the claims I've heard that a certain very-large Video Rental store chain rents edited versions of videos to exclude certain content seen as objectionable to their Management, that is not only un-ethical, but possibly a violation of Copyright, beyond "Fair Use".

Here's the point where I draw the line:
If the original publisher of the page has put content - a link or anything else - for profit or any other reason - which Google (or other 3rd-party provider) REPLACES with their own content (such as a link to a 4th party provider), I consider that to be un-ethical whether the User/reader has given their consent or not.

If this were to become common-place, what would stop some other fourth-party from contracting with Google to replace all content of a certain type with something of their choosing?

Extreme example:
the KGB contracts with Google to replace all references to "Democratic" with "Idiotic" ?
(OK, the KGB doesn't exist anymore but you get the point.)

Another extreme example:
Microsoft contracts with Google to replace all references to "Word Perfect" with "MS-Word".

It would be disclosed in the legalese concent document the reader agreed to when they installed the product, therefore you have the reader's consent, right?

If you want the tool to ADD CONTENT, that's fine, but the tool should make it BLATANTLY OBVIOUS that it has added the content.

If the tool can REPLACE CONTENT, that is NOT OKAY with me.

Presumably, every website author who has placed popup ads desires that you should view them in return for accessing their content. Therefore, you are in violation whenever you block a popup.

Had the web evolved differently, I might agree with this. But it really doesn't hold up under examination, including, as I said in my essay, an examination of the HTML specifications. Unless you're going to take technical measures to block people who don't view your ads, you aren't requiring people to view them, you're just taking advantage of most people's inability to turn them off and use of browsers that are technically capable of "popping up".

Meanwhile, you've got embedded browsers that can't have "popups", and Lynx and Links, the text-only browsers, are still flying around, and you just can't make the argument that a website is a contract where you agree to view an ad in exchange for content... unless it is explicitly laid out as such.

Should somebody ever produce a WebSquared, that defines in the standard that a compliant WebSquared browser must display the ads, and most especially if you had to pay to access it and had to use a compliant browser, then you could start making this case. (Hmmm, sounds like the old AOL/Compuserve clients, before those were glorified web sites...) It is not an intrinsically false or bad argument, it just can't be applied to the web as we have it today.

(BTW, I'm trying to avoid repeating myself, despite what it may look like at first blush, so there are some argument repetitions I'm not going to repeat my counter-point for. I don't think I've said this before here, though.)

Jeremy, why should popup blockers be allowed to "take advantage" of website authors not using technical measures which might counter them, but is isn't OK for the Google Toolbar to "take advantage" of website authors not using technical measures which counter it? There certainly are a few ways to prevent the Toolbar from doing its thing, all of which have been linked over the past few days; likewise, I admit that I hope Google provides a META tag that authors can use if they really want to block its utility.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're applying different standards of judgment to the two forms of manipulation of HTML at the client side (blocking popups and AutoLinks), but not providing any logical or reasonable basis for doing so.

I completely disagree. The distinction is the introduction of third party content. It is a completely logical distinction to make, preserving the integrity of the message and the rights of the user.

In truth and with no offense, if you don't understand that that is what I am saying, you do not understand my position. I say you can do anything you want to the content you receive, but you may not transfer that right elsewhere, not to Google, not to Microsoft, not to anyone.

That's perfectly logical. The reasonableness I leave up to you, but it's perfectly logical.

Yeah, I guess the user is not savvy enough to realize what those balls under the cursor mean...but wait a minute, didnt he just go to the settings, activate the autolink feature AND click the show me book info button? Oh yeah, the casual user is stupid...he just clicks random buttons on his toolbar for no reason at all....Oh U So Shinyy...must click.....must click

Yeah i agree fuck google. I build websites all day long and this bullshit with there auto links. I have customers that i build websites for that have books that they sell and there not sure why customers keep getting redirected to another site, because of the stupid high class blow it out your ass auto links from the isbn numbers. How fucked up is that. You own a business and a perspective customer comes along enjoys your site then gets redirected because of googles igotistcal rod shoved up there ass just to make a few bucks. Yeah sure, i love there search engine because of the no advertising on there main page. But as soon as you leave that main page your hamered by advertisers who spend more money to get there site in the first slot then actually wirting good code. Its no longer a site for programmers and there code, its all about the money now with google. So you know what fuck them and there exsistance. If you own a website and you submit it to all the search engines in the world, i bet you money the actually search engine that triumphs and sticks to the code aspect. YAHOO!! yeah thats right, I used to hate all the advertising on the main page. But there back to being my good old friend again, like in the days before google even EXSISTED. If someone rewrites there own page uses all my code and writes in a few href tags to what they want, thats PLAGERIZING, that is a federal offense. I cant take someone elses book put in a few pictures of google getting ramrod by a couple of sheep herders and call it my own, now can I!!!! Fuck them and their exsistance for now on. Keep the google hating alive.

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