So far I’ve stayed out of the fray surrounding Google’s Auto-link functionality. I can see both sides of the issue, and think that Dave Winer’s comments (starting, I think, here) and Robert Scoble’s comments (starting, I think, here) have some good points – especially when it comes to what Google could do to make the functionality of the toolbar a little less distasteful to content publishers.
It also doesn’t help much that Google’s not talking (in the blogosphere) about this. There’s no “official” Google commentary about what their plans are for the toolbar and how they respond to the concerns brought up by bloggers. I know individuals have said things in other venues, but nothing really meaningful, and nothing direct to the users that I’ve seen (if you know otherwise, please, please let me know).
All of that said, I’ve found Cory Doctorow’s comments, and those of Yoz Grahame and most recently Jason Kottke’s to be more compelling (even though Yoz’s are a little, um, sarcastic, in the “tearing of flesh” meaning). I further think that the slippery slope argument used by many of Google’s detractors in this discussion borders on the fallacious.
Actually, I encountered the most compelling argument against the auto-link feature on my own computer this morning.
I had been in the habit of running both the free version of Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware SE Personal and Spybot-S&D on a daily basis. Mostly they didn;t catch much, but every few days I’d get a tracking cookie hit or something of the like. That was until I installed Microsoft’s Windows AntiSpyware. Then, somehow, they presence of that comforting window every morning telling me that Microsoft had run through the files on my machine while I was sleeping and hadn’t found anything lulled me into a false sense of security and I hadn’t been running my other spyware tools. This morning I opened up Spybot S&D to use a different tool int he package and ran the spyware check just for kicks. Guess what? It found a few things that Microsoft’s tool hadn’t found. I ran AdAware and found a few more.
Shocking you say?
In fact, the things these two tools found were tracking cookies, which I’m not even sure Microsoft’s tool finds. The point of the whole experience is that somehow I had lulled myself into this sense of security based upon the activities of a less-trusted software vendor than Google. I’m a fairly sophisticated technology consumer, yet I allowed myself to be led down the garden path unwittingly. Other users are even more likely to trust the defaults of a tool released by a company that’s got Google’s reputation.
All of that said, I still come down on Google’s side of this issue for these reasons:
- The user has to download and install the tool, taking some responsibility for their actions
- When the Toolbar Beta does its work on a page, the page is already on the user’s machine, where they should have a lot of control over the page
- The user has to click the button for every single page to have the auto-links display
- The links are shown to be artificial in a way that many users will notice
So while I don’t think the first step down the infamous slippery slope has been taken, yet, I do think we all need to watch out for it. If Google (or anyone else) does step across the line they our work to convince that company to turn back from the slope will be all the harder.
Update: Techdirt talks intelligently about the autolink slippery slope (an old post, but a new one to me).