Monday, March 14, 2005

Personal Technology -- Personal Technology from The Wall Street Journal.

Personal Technology -- Personal Technology from The Wall Street Journal.

In his March, 2005 Wall Street Journal Tech Column, writer Walter S. Mossberg inveighs against Google's Autolink, which changes the rendering of the display of a web site to facilitate additional search. His argument, basically, is that we outght to be bound by the author's vision of how the page should look. Here is my response:

Regarding your column on Google’s Autolink Feature -- What a strange argument! By this logic, I shouldn’t be blocking those carefully placed pop up ads web authors so thoughtfully provide, so the blocker must go. The sight and hearing impaired must deactivate their HTML rendering software, which alters the real-time presentation of web content with alternate text and links useful to them. I must not turn off picture, hyperlink and audio file rendering options in IE or Foxfire, all basic browser options today. That is what would be required, at least, if the faithfully rendered argument stands.

This article is highly problematic in that it leads readers to assume, mistakenly, that somehow the toolbar is changing the author’s copy of the page. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing changed is a particular arrangement of binary data on a temporary memory chip in my own computer. And I’m changing it by my own will, not someone else’s. It has absolutely no effect on how others want to consume this information.

And that’s what it is – information that I have acquired and may choose to consume in any number of ways that all copyright principles of fair use and first sale permit and uphold. I can, of course, parse the data stream with an HTML rendering software program (a browser), which is what most people do. I can also, without ever consuming it through a browser engine, convert its words to audio (a text to speech converter), erase or delete any portions I like (e.g. graphics that may contain hostile agents, or unwanted pop-ups, frames, annoying midi tunes and other questionable practices), or analyze it with an agent to extract key words and build an index.

While a newspaper columnist might wish this morning’s opus not be used as a bird cage liner, neither does he have the right to prevent his readers from using it thusly. Once I’ve taken possession of the copy, its fate is of my choosing. In much the same way, while a web designer may indeed have put as much thought into his carefully placed links and destinations as the columnist his considered prose, once the packets hit my registers and render my own personal copy, it’s between me and my processor.

Now if you are talking about someone unethically hijacking my browser without my knowledge or will, that’s a different story -- one that has already been written, for which at least one technological solution is to scrub, preprocess and render in the manner I choose HTML code in which someone has carefully placed links and selected “special” destinations I may not want especially to visit. Altering my copy of someone else’s HTML isn’t always a bad thing, you know…

Bruce Fulton


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