Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Google's browser toolbar is raising eyebrows over a feature that inserts new hyperlinks in Web pages, giving the Internet search provider a powerful tool to funnel traffic to destinations of its choice.
When Web surfers install the toolbar in their Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser and click the AutoLink button, Web pages with street addresses suddenly sprout links to Google's map service by default. Book publishers' ISBN numbers trigger links to Amazon.com, potentially luring shoppers away from competing book sellers such as BarnesandNoble.com. Vehicle ID licenses spawn links to Carfax.com, while package tracking numbers connect automatically to shippers' Web sites.
Google, the world's most widely used search engine, denied that the AutoLink feature is an attempt to control which destinations Web surfers visit. People can already choose between several map services, including Yahoo and MapQuest, and choices for book retailers may be added in the future, a company representative said on Friday.
Nevertheless, some critics charge that AutoLink takes the liberty of modifying Web pages to direct people the way Google sees fit. Microsoft took the same approach with its Smart Tags feature years ago and eventually pulled it because of trust and trademark concerns.
"Google is to the Web what Microsoft is to PCs—the operating system everyone uses to search. It has nearly the same lock on consumers' share of mind...And millions use the Google Toolbar. They shouldn't get away with what Microsoft was unable to," Steve Rubel wrote on Wednesday on his Micropersuasion blog.
The technology dredges up a long-simmering legal debate over who owns the desktop. Does the consumer have the right to install software that can manipulate the appearance or delivery of Web pages? Or does the Web publisher have the ultimate say and control over how its content is displayed?
The argument is central to lawsuits in the adware industry. Many Web publishers and e-commerce companies have filed suit against application makers like Claria, formerly Gator, and WhenU for using their software to deliver pop-ups advertising rival online stores at the point of purchase. While many such cases have settled out of court, there have also been some mixed jury rulings. Some judges favor the copyright owner, and some favor technology.
"If I'm on Company A's Web site, and a third party is allowing me to direct me to Company B, there will be some controversy over who controls whose information," said Richard Purcell, former chief privacy officer at Microsoft, who's now CEO of Corporate Privacy Group.
A BarnesandNoble.com representative said the company is reviewing Google's new toolbar technology and is in discussions with Google about it.
Google's director of Web products, Marissa Mayer, said her team had a healthy debate about how the feature would work before it was implemented. She said the group didn't consider comparisons with Microsoft's pulled Smart Tags feature. But she said that AutoLink was designed to ensure people remain in control.
"This is a user-elected feature. Upon clicking the link, we make these modifications the way you'd like us to modify the page," Mayer said. "Google has great respect for copyright owners. They're the lifeblood of search."
In function, Google's AutoLink is similar to Microsoft's Smart Tags, but in design, it differs. Years ago, Microsoft created the tags to automatically link documents or content on a machine to a network, and retrieve data. The feature still works in Office: if you write a person's name in a Word document you can click an icon to call up the person's address or e-mail, for example.
But in 2001, with the release of Office XP, Microsoft added the feature to a beta version of Internet Explorer 6. The Internet community was up in arms because Microsoft proposed to link text on pages by default to MSN sites. As a result, Microsoft quashed the feature for IE.
Smart Tags were like "a guide, and the guide always tells you what you're looking at, or to turn right instead of left," Purcell said. "The suspicion was more to do with who the guide was than the function of being guided."
Still, trademark attorneys and security experts say that AutoLink could face problems, because Google modifies the underlying HTML of a Web page to deliver the added links.
"I see it as an issue of 'Who owns the content being displayed?' Google does not own the content, and when it uses the content of others to make money, it often will be violating the intellectual property laws," said Terence Ross, at attorney at Gibson Dunn.
For now, Google does not use AutoLink to add hyperlinks to advertisers. And Mayer said Amazon.com did not pay to be its default e-tailer for books; it simply decided that Amazon had the largest selection. In the full release, scheduled for April, Google may give people the option to choose which sites to link to for ISBN numbers, she said.
Despite criticism, some Web developers said they see beneficial uses for tools such as AutoLink and Smart Tags, given sufficient flexibility and user control.
"I thought then, and still think now, that Smart Tags were a great idea, especially if they were implemented as an option," wrote Anil Dash, an executive at Six Apart, on his blog.
"Being able to use simple text parsing (and hopefully eventually some sort of Bayesian or semantic processing) to annotate a page with additional links and information is exactly what I want my user agents of choice (namely, Firefox and Internet Explorer) to be able to do," he noted. "Once your HTML page gets to my machine, it's mine to rip, mix and burn."