My Content-Altering Experience

Brian Carnell writes:

Its amazing how quickly so many web publishers have turned into RIAA/MPAA-wannabes, locking down their wares and complaining about the users who dare to remix or modify content in their browser in ways that the user finds helpful.

I don't think it's that amazing, given the natural desire to preserve the integrity of your work or (cue horror music) decide who profits from it. Even the most remix-friendly Web publishers, those who have adopted a Creative Commons license, prefer the non-commercial attribution option.

In January, Carnell offered an objection that sounds like me talking about the Google Toolbar:

The advertising issue gets to the heart of the matter -- just how much altering of an RSS feed is an aggregator legally permitted to engage in? ... I would not want anyone taking my RSS feed(s) and inserting their own ads, or republishing a full article feed with their ads inserted, anymore than I appreciate the idiots at About.Com framing my content with their ads.

Some users seem to view all copyright holders as if they were the recording industry. I'm not clear on how Web publishers, a mostly amateur crowd offering their work at no cost for little profit, compare to a multibillion-dollar industry of price-fixing, artist-abusing monopolists who spend millions attacking fair use and suing their own customers.

The ContentAltering meta tag that set Carnell off is worded as a request -- "none: the web page author requests no client side content altering" -- and proposed in the hope that software developers will choose to adopt it. The broadcast flag is an order from a government agency that doles out six-figure fines for rule violations. Equating the two is like comparing the Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot to the BFG 9000.

Supporters of Google Toolbar are so wedded to the principle of user control that they don't even seem to care that the present implementation sucks.

You can't add your own autolink providers, visually distinguish between original and added content, examine the source code, or extend the architecture. You can't even stop the program from updating itself.

My favorite enhancement: The toolbar phones home to Google with every page request. On my computer, it can't find my active DSL connection, so every attempt opens another connect dialog.

If you're a privacy advocate or one of the people who believes that freedom zero matters, how can you possibly embrace this thing?

Though I'm not a fan of the toolbar, I am officially renouncing the argument that it represents a dire new precedent for the Web.

The incitement to dynamically remix content was created not by Google or Microsoft SmartTags but by the Document Object Model, a W3C standard for structuring Web content so that it may be manipulated easily by code.

The more I look at DOM, the more I understand why a Web page is being viewed as raw material for user agents to process into other forms. My conception of a page -- a flat file of markup and content that's hopelessly clumsy to parse -- has become dated.

Whether publishers like it or not, every one of our Web documents arrives at the browser with its own API that invites alteration by code.

I'm thinking about adopting the new meta tag, but not to demand the unfiltered browser I took for granted.

Instead, I may acknowledge that I can't reach an audience without dealing with one or more beloved butlers that can decide whether to let my message in the door:

Either that, or convert all of my Web pages to big-ass GIFs.


How can we embrace it? Mostly, we can't and don't: I've said several times that I'll never use it, because they aren't going to make a toolbar for my browser. If the opponents of it had started out by saying what they are edging toward now, "Google is the spawn of Satan, and no matter how good or bad a thing the inevitable remixing of web pages is, they must not be allowed to do it" I would have been completely uninterested, instead of only mildly uninterested. What got my dander up were the first shots, claiming that any alteration of a single sacred word in someone's HTML was not just naughty, but prima facie illegal. I've altered people's HTML for years, and having recently gotten (Free) tools that make it much easier, I'm going to do a lot more in the future, so I'd rather not have dubious but rather loud "legal" opinions treated as fact.

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