When Web surfers install thein 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 itsfeature years ago and eventually 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, formerly Gator, and
"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