Apparently, some more definitiveness is required. Not only did I get another (email) response from Dave asking me to further clarify things, but several other smart people also seem to be touting the slippery slope argument as well as demanding that their content be delivered to the user’s eyeballs unaltered. “We are on the first step down the road to madness!” they yell. “Where is the line to be drawn?” God knows, I’ve been aching to draw a line under this whole thing since it started (which was the point of my first post).
Dave specifically requested I answer his email publicly: I shall quote it in its entirety with my interspersed responses, and tackle Scoble, Calacanis, Rubel et al at the same time. While eating a banana. (Excellent value for your attention dollar, that’s me.)
Now how about answering the question I asked.
Where is the line?
What are the rules?
I thought Roger Benningfield nailed this one already, but clearly it needs further clarification. You want a completely solid line? Here goes:
If a content-modifying function:
- has a definition that is completely understood by the user
- is only invocable at the user’s request and in isolation (i.e. not automatically)
- has an effect limited to the user who invoked it
… then it’s entirely within the spirit of the Web, no matter what modification it performs. No exceptions.
Google AutoLink fits completely within that definition. Hence, it’s fine and not worth arguing about. There are other existing functions out there that step over the line. (Note that stepping over the line does not automatically imply evil. Just that staying behind the line is a guarantee of non-evil.) But, for the rest of this discussion, we’re dealing entirely with tools that work like Google AutoLink, since that’s what everyone seems to have a problem with.
It’s at this point that I say goodbye to anyone who wants to run off down the slippery slope and imagine a bunch of plugins, browsers and robot henchmen that are outside of this definition and, say, eat puppies. Please feel free to do so, but not here. As soon as reality catches up with your imaginings, I will too. Until then, I prefer to deal with real problems that exist today.
Can I scrape Google and replace their ads with mine?
Sho’nuff, as long as it stays on your machine (point 3). If you want to write a plugin to do it and pass it around your friends, that’s fine too, as long as it fits with the rules above. It’s only if you publish these scraped pages to the web that Google might have a problem with it. But then, they don’t seem to have shut down Scroogle yet. (For many other fascinating Google-scrapers, see Cory’s excellent collection.
(If you can’t see the difference between making the modification on your own machine and publishing it to the rest of the web, then you need to read up on fair use in copyright, not to mention the concepts of passing off and fraud.)
Why not? No, really, why not? What’s the difference between Microsoft doing it, Google doing it, and my 10-year-old neighbour doing it? The argument doesn’t magically change just because you write “Microsoft” in the title bar, no matter what Scoble seems to think. Abuses of monopoly power happen when the consumer has a choice taken away from them. Nobody is forcing anybody to install Google Toolbar. Were an MSN Toolbar to be similarly optional, exactly the same rules would apply.
This leads onto another hot topic, which is that Google AutoLink creates links to providers of Google’s own choice, as if any company which doesn’t also advertise its competitors is somehow evil. We now have a situation where Google, bless ’em, have modified the Toolbar so it can link to Yahoo! Maps if the user wishes. This is a wonderful feature and in no way were they required to do it. If you want all your map links to go to Yahoo!, then install the Yahoo! Toolbar. If you don’t like the fact that Google AutoLinks to, say, Amazon, then don’t click the AutoLink button. They’ve been completely open about what it does, and nobody’s forcing you. This really isn’t that hard.
And while we’re talking about Microsoft, I should point out that for several months now, Microsoft has automatically installed on its users’ machines an automated content-modifying function that is part of Internet Explorer. Furthermore, this is a function which removes ads and thus hits publishers’ revenue. Yep, it’s the pop-up blocker in SP2. (Thanks, rOD.) And Microsoft did it because the users were crying out for it. I’m intrigued to know who amongst the AutoLink opposition have automated pop-up blocking enabled in their browsers, and whether they think this might be a teeny bit hypocritical.
Please post your answers on the web.
Here you go. If you like, you can download this page and do whatever you want with it as long as you don’t republish those modifications without my permission. (Because, Natalie, such changes have no effect on my site. They only change one person’s view of it.) It’s weird that I have to spell that out because that’s how the web — no, wait, that’s how publishing has always worked.
Jason: Imagine that you’re a paper magazine publisher (free or paid, doesn’t matter). I’ve got one copy of your magazine and taken it home. Are you seriously suggesting that I shouldn’t be allowed to do whatever the hell I like with it? That, say, I shouldn’t be able to rip all of the ads out of it (or scribble over them) if I so choose? Are you further suggesting that if News Corporation creates some kind of paper-mangling machine that turns your magazine into a Fox News papsheet, that I shouldn’t be allowed to buy it? As long as I am completely informed as to what the machine does, why can I not be allowed to make that choice myself?
After your ad hominems and sarcasm, there wasn't much left other than "I
I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any ad hominem attacks on you, Dave.
As for sarcasm, I believe (and many others around the web seem to agree, based on the trackbacks) that satire was a valid and effective way to communicate my problems with the argument. Clearly, there have been some problems with it since you believe that there was no argument there, even though there is nothing I argue in the second piece that wasn’t in the first.
Okay, I’m pretty much done here, and I hope that I can mostly leave this sorry mess behind and get on with blogging about something more directly relevant to me, like cleaning this banana off my keyboard. In the meantime, however, I want to leave all those who are still opposed to my viewpoint, and still running off down that tempting slippery slope, with this thought:
If you must have a slippery slope to play with, then imagine one that slopes the other way. One where the content publishers have more and more control, where they have the power to decide, say, who can link to a page, how long your browser must stay on a page before being allowed to leave, which pages it is allowed to exit to, etc.
Just like the slippery slope I’ve been complaining about, this one is similarly absurd. But if you want to take the first real step down it, it’s simple: Turn your pop-up blocker off.