Here's how James Bennett summarizes the Google Toolbar controversy on Kuro5hin:

While Winer et al. have been attacking AutoLink, a number of people have been calmly debunking their arguments, often in amusing ways.

Anyone want to venture a guess as to which side he's on?

Bennett, a veritable eddy of calm in angry seas, believes that anyone opposed to the autolink feature hates his users and Google isn't doing this to make money.


I can't believe that democracy has taken a back seat in the European Union, and you guys are still talking about toolbars. If you want to see a real breach of rights, take a look at the software patent storm in the world's newest banana republic.

I never claimed *I* was being calm, and all the information we have says that Google isn't being paid by Amazon or Carfax for the links AutoLink creates. And as I've said repeatedly, I think the AutoLink "controversy" is really just FUD being used to mask the real issue. If people are afraid of Google and want to talk about their fear, that's fine by me. But hiding it behind "oh my god they changed my page", when extensions and plugins that (gasp) change people's pages are everywhere, is dishonest and suspect.

Take, for example, the BetterBadNews video you linked below, which was either A) made by people who hadn't used the new Toolbar beta and thus had no clue how it worked, or B) didn't care about the facts of the issue and decided to just make stuff up instead.

If people are afraid of Google and want to talk about their fear, that's fine by me.

Do you have any idea how patronizing you're being here?

Like many other people, you seem to be incapable of believing that there are legitimate reasons to oppose the toolbar.

I don't see how you can read the objections of people like Tim Bray, Jeffrey Zeldman, Danny Sullivan, and Dave Winer and conclude that they're all dishonestly masking their real problem: fear and loathing of Google.

Maybe there's a possibility, however remote you may find it, that they are objecting to the toolbar for the reasons they've outlined on their sites.

There may be legitimate reasons for opposing AutoLink, but I sure haven't seen them yet. Where are they?

I ask because what I have seen is an unbelievable amount of FUD and misinformation. If I'm to believe what I'm reading these days, AutoLink will break into my house unannounced, camp out on my couch with its laptop, and proceed to unstoppably overwrite every link I see on the Web with ads, all as part of a nefarious scheme designed to bankrupt independent retailers and firmly install Google as Supreme Overlod of the Universe. And I'm not really exaggerating about that.

The sheer force and venom of the FUD involved in some of the arguments leads me to suspect that this is not about content modification, and the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of content-modifiying programs already exist and are in widespread use confirms the suspicion. With some people I don't know what the real issue is; I think in Zeldman's case, for exmample, it was simply something that looked, at first glance, too much like Smart Tags, but I can't be sure. Danny Sullivan's problem I've written about; to my mind, his argument was contradictory and spent a bit too much time defending the "sheep ranchers and mushroom farmers" (as Phil Ringnalda called them) to be taken seriously.

But with some of the other people who are making noise, I hve no trouble believing that there's some serious Google-fear fueling the debate; Tim Bray, in his original original post on AutoLink, hinted at this by pointing out his trust issues with MSN. And I can certainly believe that Dave Winer's got Google issues; it's really not hard to get that idea from reading Scripting News.

As to the "patronizing" bit, keep in mind that this argument is (ostensibly) about webmasters and authors telling me "don't worry your pretty little head about that, put away your ittle toolbar and we'll make sure you see everything you need to see". If they want to patronize me, I'll patronize right back.

So basically, because you've invented an incredibly patronizing anti-autolink argument in your head, you have every right to respond in kind.

I don't see it.

From my perspective, most of the well-known critics of the toolbar have couched their criticism in what it does, and what they believe it will lead to. They haven't made false claims about it.

Personally, I began discussing this by documenting the exact behavior of the toolbar, complete with screenshots. I've conceded that the opportunity for these content edits comes from the Document Object Model, not from Google.

Yet I've been dismissed as pathetic, a Google hater, one of the total hacks of the weblog world, and a tech-elite busybody.

Insult after insult, all coming from people telling me that I'm responding from my emotion rather than my intellect.

Funny how that works.

I don't want to get into the advise-dispensing business, but I've read a lot of tech bloggers lately whose powers of persuasion would be stronger if they could at least fake respect for differing opinions. You're not going to change many people's minds with derision and contempt.

My first attempt at this comment got eaten, then I saw the note about being limited to three links. So let's try that again:

I don't think I've "invented" anything; take a look again at the BetterBadNews video, which is showing up everywhere, and then consider how many problems there are in its arguments. Consider Dave Winer's position that AutoLink is adware, despite his inability to find any ads. Believe me, I wish I were making this stuff up.

What I want to see is reasoned discussion, based on the facts. You've done a pretty good job of it here (which is one reason why I'm commenting here), though I'd argue a couple points with you here and there. Same goes for Jonas Luster. But there are far too many people who literally started from "it's evil"; how likely do you think that is to produce useful discussion?

And I do think a lot of the problem is not AutoLink, but people's fear of Google; a lot of folks are afraid that Google is or will become "the next Microsoft", and I'm fairly certain that this fear is the real source of a lot of the anti-AutoLink backlash. Consider the arguments against AutoLink:

Some people say that AutoLink is bad because it's not configurable; this is the one and only sensible criticism I've seen. It's true that the map function can be configured to use your choice of map providers, and it's true that the package-tracking function really doesn't have much choice besides linking to whoever's handling the shipping, but the VIN and ISBN functions could stand to have some options. This is a good piece of feedback on beta software, but it's not a good argument for abolishing AutoLink.

Some people say that AutoLink is legally wrong, and argue that it violates copyright by modifying a page. I have a hard time buying that argument because A) no copies of the page are made or distributed and B) most web browsers arguably have to modify the content of a page just to display it at all; othewise, how do you render the tag soup you find everywhere? Also, if AutoLink violates a non-commercial CC license, does my free copy of Opera violate the same license by displaying a bar of relevant advertising in the top of the window? Nobody's sued them yet over it, so I'll guess it doesn't.

And the big point: some people say it's morally wrong to modify the page's content, while some say it's OK in some cases but draw the line at adding links. I use Adblock and a user stylesheet to hide advertising on sites I visit (equal-opportunity blocking: I also strip sponsored results out of Google's result pages, and a few other engines, too), which is modification of content. I have an extension that'll modify a page by creating links to relevant Wikiedia pages. Neither of these things is considered evil, so why is AutoLink evil? This argument is simply self-contradictory.

But that last argument leaves me wondering: why is it OK for me to do this with extensions I downloaded, or with functions built in to my browser, but suddenly "evil" when Google does it? Maybe it's not something about AutoLink, but rather something about Google.

And a final note about the "patronizing": I think Danny Sullivan's piece was a great example of the attitude that I'm responding to; his post basically patted me on the head and said "of course you have rights, little user", then added "as long as it's profitable for me to act like you do". Then he went on to express concern that, maybe, tools like AutoLink would put power in the hands of users, and that suddenly it wouldn't be possible to make a living by gaming the search engines; apparently users aren't supposed to find what they're looking for, they're just supposed to be quiet, put up with useless portal pages, and click the affiliate links when they're told. Faced with a disrespectful, user-hostile attitude like that, I'd saying I'm doing pretty well to only come off as "patronizing".

Sorry about the three-link restriction. I need to code a preview function to make it apparent.

Your characterization of Danny Sullivan's article is, to my thinking, a highly unfair representation of what he wrote.

He wrote that the autolink feature is both "very nice" and "handy" from a user's perspective, that "publishers do get a benefit," that the principle of user control is a "pretty forceful argument."

You can argue with his conclusion that autolink crosses a line, but the tone of his piece was extremely fair to both sides.

James, you could try my take on the issue; in way, way, way summary, I draw the line at mixing third party content without permission of both the reader and the writer, but that the reader is free to do what they want with the content as long as they aren't mixing third party content, which the vast majority of current tools don't. (Turning off images doesn't mix third party content, for instance, nor does blocking popups. The Google Toolbar links come from Google, and that is the line I consider crossed. Should you find existing tools that also mix third party content, I also do not approve of those, either.)

Personally, I think it has been a grave error to phrase objections in terms of "changing my content" because that, ultimately, isn't the real issue. Content changes all the time.

I am also somewhat saddened to see that the fight has, as I expected, degenerated into, essentially, "readers have all the power!" vs. "writers have all the power!", even as A: one should always be immediately suspect of such black-and-white claims in such a complex world (and I believe I can provide a principled grey), and B: the latter really isn't a fair characterization of many of the AutoLink objecters (and it completely fails to describe me).

I am increasingly certain that we're going to have to learn the hard way what a bad, bad idea this is. Where we had balance, we're going to have an absolute, and it is such a very, very tempting absolute, unlike "writers have all the power" which is only seductive to the big guys. But the precedent it sets will be a disaster and I'm really not looking forward to the court precedents that will be set after the judge is handed his choice of these two absolutes...

Also, note that predates Google's Toolbar by at least two years, the ideas more like three, which should affect how you read it. I can't be patronizing in that piece to either "side" that exists today, the sides didn't exist when I wrote it.

Rogers: my problem with Danny's article is when he says things like this:

I don't care if the user thinks adding links to my pages will make things better for them. As a publisher, I want to be able to override a tool that tries this.

And this:

My response to the "protect the user experience" argument is pretty blunt. Too bad if it is harmed in this case, from Google's perspective.

It's hard to be much more user-hostile than that, really.

Jeremy: would you be OK with using Scott Evans' wikipedizer API to generate links to Wikipedia articles out of a page?

Whoops! I very nearly stuck my foot in my mouth. I had thought that was a page that added links like Google, although perhaps via a proxy.

The wikipedizer, as it stands, is a great example of how I think we need to develop our technology going forward; you have every right to reference a page like that and provide some of your own information about it. Another similar example I used was during the annotation scuffle of many years ago; instead of mixing the annotations into the page, you have every right to create discussion boards referencing specific web pages, you just can't integrate them into the page itself.

But there would be specific uses of that data I would object to. Creating a new web page containing those links would be fine; I assume that's what you mean by "generate links". Using it to dynamically add links to the source page without permission of the author, as the Google toolbar does, I would consider unethical. Creating a Mozilla toolbar that sat off to the side is borderline, very borderline, and I honestly don't care one way or another which way that would go. Distributing a bookmarklet that sent the user to a page that had a list of relevant links wouldn't bother me, even if the resulting page was identical to the Mozilla side bar.

(If you dig into my definition of "message independence", you'll understand my ambivalence there; even though I try to nail it down as tight as I can, co-existance is a very touchy issue no matter how you slice it; generally I would say it is proportional to how the "common man" would interpret the screen, with the huge caveat that a lot of debaters try to ram a "common man" down my throat that apparently has a PhD in Computer Science with their "average" ability to discern what comes from where; I really do mean common. I find it better to think of the "common man" as very busy, rather than "stupid" which is a bit elitist; assume they have better things to do with their time than track down what came from where and you'll be pretty close to the truth. When dealing with humans you ultimately do, at some point, come down to this; I get farther than most, I think.)

It's hard to be much more user-hostile than that, really.

Perhaps. But I don't think it's hostile as much as it is stating what he wants: a way to opt-out of autolink.

Just because users want something doesn't mean a publisher has to offer it. My weblog would be a better experience for users if Mike Masnick wrote it instead of me. I will not be implementing that functionality any time soon.

Jeremy: I was thinking more along the lines of using Wikipedizer to create something which would add links to pages on the fly, but you answered my question there. In that case, consider these three situations:

1) I'm looking at a page which has a street address on it. I copy the address to my clipboard, open a new browser window/tab, go to Mapquest and paste in the address to get a map.

2) I'm looking at a page which has a street address on it. I click a button in my web browser and am sent to a Mapquest page with a map for that address.

3) I'm looking at a page which has a street address on it. I click a button in my web browser, and that street address becomes a link to the Mapquest page for that address.

Ethically, what are the differences between the three cases, if any? What is the justification for the criteria you use to differentiate them?

By the way: AutoLink, by your definition, is not censorship.

It's taken me a while to catch up on this, but the point seems relatively minor: some people want publishers to be able to opt-out of google's autolink enhancements. That seems like a nice thing for google to do. Perfectly reasonable in fact.

Look at it this way: putting up a web-page is partly "publishing" in the sense that it's making information available to someone else. In another sense it's an act of expression or creation. If my primary goal is to publish useful information, then I have little to fear from Google except that they're going to make my information even more useful than it would have been, and possibly make some money off it.

However, if my primary goal is expression, I may want to opt-out with that page, because maybe I don't want all those things to appear as links.

I fail to see why there's any hysteria over this.

1 is fine.

2 can't exist. You have to specify the address somehow.

3 is over the line for me.

Since #2 is a wash, let me fill one in: Let me create a Firefox extension that sends you to that page on mapquest if you highlight it, right-click on it, and select "Go To Mapquest".

First, if the user wrote it themselves, no problem. Note that "mere mortals" can write such things with proper tool support, and I support such tools.

It's borderline if the extension only goes to Mapquest, but the "content" being mixed is very small and one can argue it's just a bit of the code, almost literally just the phrase "" and a bit. If the extension starts applying a lot of logic, especially logic that can't come from the user, it starts trending over the line.

I'd say two things: One, if you're going to try to finely subdivide the topic until you catch me in a supposed contradiction, good luck; I'm happy to say things get fuzzy when you zoom way in on them, which is what you're doing here. Everything is fuzzy near any line, if you go looking. It also doesn't affect my global point of view where most things of interest lie, particularly in the sense that Google is firmly over the one that I have chosen to draw.

Two, yes, it is censorship by my definition, emphasis on "my"; you can debate the utility of that, you can debate whether it has any meaning, you can debate whether anyone cares, but as the world's leading expert on what my definition means, I assure you that this fits my definition of censorship. If you don't think it does, the fault lies either in your understanding or my explanation.

Right now, in all honesty, I can't tell which one that is. I keep re-reading it and it defeats me how to make it clearer without making it even longer, but if anybody has actually understood what I'm getting at I haven't heard from them yet. I'm torn between it being some fundamental flaw in my writing that I can't see, or simply that people are so mired in pre-conceived notions on the topic that they simply can't hear what I'm saying. (And there's a nagging notion in the back of my head that we're all so stuck in confrontational states of mind on the topic that nobody is willing to grant anybody else even the slightest bit of the benefit of the doubt long enough to verify that they actually understand what the other person is saying before laying into them and that we all might as well stop "debating" now because everybody has already made up their minds, thought, evidence, and rationality be damned. Frankly, the evidence probably leans in this way; I can't believe that somebody managed to connect, with a straight face, not supporting AutoLink with some form of latent sexism, but they did.)

Jeremy: Actually, what I want is to explore the reason why you think this is over the line. So let's try another set of examples:

1) I have a book in my possession. One day as I'm reading, an interesting related thought occurs to me and I scribble it in the margin.

2) I have a book in my possession, and lend it to a friend. She calls me up and says "this interesting thought occurred to me as I was reading", and I tell her "that's really neat and I'd like to remember that for later; would you scribble a note in the margin about it for me?"

Are either of these over the line? If so, which one and why?

And by my reading of your definition, AutoLink isn't censorship. You defined censorship as follows:

Censorship is the act of changing a message, including the act of deletion, between the sender and the receiver, without the sender's and receiver's consent and knowledge.

Between the sender and receiver, nothing unusual happens; AutoLink's linking cannot be triggered until after the page has been received and rendered. In other words, the page is received and displayed as the sender intended. After that has taken place, the user may or may not consciously choose to press the AutoLink button. By your definition, then, AutoLink is not censorship.

Neither is it "annotation" by your definition, as far as I can tell.

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