Dan Gillmor and the Google Toolbar

Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, Etc. reports Google Toolbar, an Update. UPDATED

“I had lunch yesterday with several Google folks including Marissa Mayer, the company’s director of consumer Web products, to discuss the new Google Toolbar, which is now in beta.

“Like several other people, I have raised serious questions about this product’s new “AutoLink” tool. It strikes me as an intrusion into people’s browsers by a company that commands great market share.

“She listened to my concerns. And she explained Google’s stance — nothing new there, and it amounts to “this is all for the users’ benefit” defense. I am not convinced, however, that Google will end up doing the right thing in the end.

“As Search Engine Watch asks in this piece: “Why are publishers upset? Can they block the feature that adds links to their web pages? Who rules over content, users or publishers?”

“Good and fair questions — but Google hasn’t sufficiently answered them.

“At the very least, Google needs to make some changes in the installation process. As users install the toolbar they should be asked if they want features that change content on web pages. There should be an opt-in process, not an opt-out process, for such things.

“I have trouble with Search Engine Watch’s Danny Sullivan’s view that publishers of Web sites should be able to opt out of the toolbar changes. In theory, once I have content on my desktop it should be my right to “remix” it in the way I choose.

“What Google isn’t taking into account is that its market power, and the tendency of users to accept the default — to eat what’s on the plate someone puts in front of them — will tend to create Google’s version of the Web, not the users’ version. We all hates Microsoft’s Smart Tags idea because it gave more, unearned power to Microsoft. Google doesn’t have that same dominance, but it has enough to worry about.

“Will Google do the right thing? This is a big test.

(By the way, Mayer said that while Microsoft’s former Smart Tags guy is working for Google now, he’s not involved in the Toolbar project.)

I’m surprised that Dan isn’t focused on what I see as the large issue here – the copyright violation that Google commits when they alter content they don’t own. On my web site, I plug one of my books, Essential SourceSafe with a link to the publisher’s web site, where you can buy this book. Buying it directly from the publisher benefits the publisher in less cost and consequently greater profit, some of which is passed on to me. The ISBN is listed on the page; the reader is free to copy this number and paste it into a book store search on BookPool, eBay, Barnes and Noble, Amazon or any other book seller they wish. (Better a sale than no sale, right?) But if the web browser has Google Toolbar installed, I’m told that ISBN is turned into a link to Amazon. Who’s making the profit on that link to Amazon? Not me. I’ll bet Google does. So, I lose money on a web page I wrote and support and host, and Google gains? I’m not comfortable with that.

How different is it for Google to provide this service automatically from the user doing it manually? There’s a fine line between offering convenience to the user, offering the ability to remix incoming content, and the act of automatically rewriting it for the profit of others. Most browsers offer the ability to apply a stylesheet of your own choice to incoming content — bumping up the fonts or increasing the contrast for a visually impaired user for example — and this is a good, empowering feature. But adding or rewriting links for the benefit of third party is different. Isn’t this what some adware does? This is troubling.

Microsoft gave in to public pressure and published support for a META tag that would disable SmartTag processing on a web page, but this still puts the burden on the author and copyright holder and does not require the software using the page to respect the copyright and license of the content. It needs to be the other way — let writers opt in if they want their work rewritten. I wonder who would opt in?

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