Google has created a big stir among the webtelligentsia by releasing a beta of Version 3 of the Google Toolbar. The issue? Google has added an AutoLink feature that, on command, adds links related to certain kinds of information on the page. Many people have noted that AutoLink looks a lot like the Microsoft Smart Tags “feature” that was introduced, and then withdrawn (with some exceptions), in 2001.
At the time I was solidly against Smart Tags. I wrote, “To link or not to link, and to what, is an editorial decision, period. And the decision to do so rests with the people involved in the editorial process, and nowhere else.”
For some reason, though, I’m having trouble getting quite that upset by AutoLink. So the question for me, really, is why that might be. What are the key differences between AutoLink and Smart Tags that make the difference?
First, AutoLink doesn’t “just happen” – a user has to first download and install the Toolbar, and then click on a button to make anything happen. Smart Tags, as I understood them in their original form, would have worked automatically. There might have been a preference to toggle somewhere, but once that was done it would systematically add the links to every page the browser displayed. AutoLinks is not comparable at all in this respect.
Second, I think the web has changed in the intervening 3.5-4 years. As Jason points out very effectively, there are now many client-side modifications that are provided to web pages, from pop-up blockers to word highlighting and features built in to many Firefox extensions. Because a user has to explicitly choose which page for this to act upon, it doesn’t seem very different than these other user-specified modifications.
Third, though related to these, is the argument that Anil Dash makes, that once material gets to one’s personal computer, they are free to “rip, mix, and burn” it as they see fit. Anil draws the loop even tighter – if you complain about AutoLinks on editorial grounds, you are really sharing political ground with the RIAA and MPAA, who would also propose that users have no rights over the information that enters their personal media environment.
I won’t go quite that far, personally, and I still think Smart Tags in a browser is a bad idea – the explicit step required by AutoLink is a big deal for me. I would also prefer it a great deal if Google provided a simple way to designate alternate information providers for their AutoLinks. Overall, though, I think AutoLink is an interesting feature, and that ultimately, there is a free speech link to all of this. Just as the solution for potentially objectionable speech is more speech, not to prevent speech, the solution for users who are concerned by this is to provide more such options, not to foreclose on the first viable option that’s available.